May 24th 2007 - SASAN GIR
From The Economist print edition
A TESTY flick of a black-tipped tail and the lion shows itself, resting in a sandy-brown thicket after the arduous business of mating. The female is ten yards to the right, staring statuesque through the scrub. The pair of Asiatic lions, in Gir National Park, in India's western state of Gujarat, will conjoin every 25 minutes for four days. With every ejaculation, the male will emit an increasingly weary roar. Being a lion is not easy—and not only because the species is so inefficient at reproducing.
Little known even in India, the 350-odd lions at Gir are the last survivors of a sub-species that once roamed from Greece to eastern India. The lions in Daniel's biblical den were of this Asiatic kind, smaller than African lions, with a lower-slung belly. The survivors in Gujarat—which live, incidentally, alongside 20,000 descendants of African slaves, whose ancestors were freighted to the region two centuries ago—are a rare conservation success. There were just two dozen animals by 1900, when the local maharajas and British officers started shooting them less and protecting them more. But in the past four months, eight Asiatic lions have been killed by poachers.
Unlike tigers and leopards, which are poached for their pelts and for their bones to make Chinese traditional medicines, lion carcasses used not to be prized on the black market. That seems to have changed. The animals poached at Gir were snared, using steel tiger traps, by experienced tiger killers, members of an 'untouchable' community devoted to the task. Their bones—practically indistinguishable from tiger bones—were removed. Indian wildlife officials believe they will be smuggled to China, as either counterfeit tiger bones or an acceptable substitute for them.
Gujarat's state government, which relishes its custody of the last of the breed that adorns India's national symbol, has lurched into action. The chief minister has pledged an additional 400m rupees ($9.8m) to Gir, which will pay for 300 extra guards. There has also been an investigation into the recent poaching; 40 people have been arrested.
Alas, this may not save the Asiatic lion, if the plight of India's tigers is any guide. Despite decades of intermittent government flurries of activity to save them, Indian tiger numbers have collapsed, to around 1,800 in the wild, about half the world's total. They are victims of China's feverish demand for tiger-penis wine and for tiger bones, of a corrupt and moribund Indian Forest Service and of the populist concerns of the current government for the tribes who live, and sometimes poach, in India's protected forests.
Protecting the Asiatic lions will take more than money. A clear-out of Gujarat's indolent forestry officials is required. Hundreds of wells, dug in the Gir reserve by local tribes, need to be covered; 19 lions have drowned in these pits in the past five years. And a second lion colony is needed, in order to guard against a high risk of the Gir lions being wiped out by an epidemic. A suitable forest, in Madhya Pradesh, has been prepared for this; 1,500 families have been moved out of the area. But Gujarat's government, jealous of what it considers to be its lions, has refused to let any leave the state.