Sunday, July 22, 2007


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Lions and tigers and the foibles of men

Special to The Japan Times

MADRAS, India — The Chinese now appear to be turning to Indian lions since a terrifying number of tigers have been killed for their body parts, which are sold to make medicines and even aphrodisiacs.

In India's Gir Forest, the last of some 350 Asiatic lions survive. These are a subspecies that once roamed from Greece to eastern India.

We are told that the lions in Daniel's Biblical den were of this kind, smaller than their African brothers. Curiously, these Indian Asiatic lions live alongside 20,000 descendants of African slaves once shipped into the country.

Although wanton shikar (hunting for sport) by British officers and Indian maharajahs around 1900 depleted the lion population to no more than 24, post-independence conservation efforts by Indian administrations resulted in a phenomenal comeback.

However, in the past four months, eight lions in the Gir Forest of northwestern India have been killed by poachers, who have now turned their attention to these animals after having decimated tigers at an alarming level. Since the medicinal qualities of lion parts are not as readily accepted by consumers as those of tiger parts, lion bones and organs are being passed off as tiger parts!

Although the government of Gujarat, where Gir is located, has swung into action trying to save the lion, animal lovers and experts worry that steps will be as futile as those taken to protect the tiger whose numbers are now estimated at 1,800 — half the world's tiger population. These majestic cats have been butchered in India's forests and tiger reserves to feed a largely Chinese demand for bones and penises, which are used literally to fool a gullible set of men.

In India — where corrupt government officials have also hoodwinked the media as well as men by conjuring tigers out of thin air with the highly unreliable pug-mark method to count the animals — the fate of lions will be as hopeless unless the top echelons of political power make up their minds to fight poachers.

Poachers are backed by powerful lawyers who ensure that the guilty are seldom punished. Just compare the number of tigers killed in the past decade (one a day for many years, according to one reliable estimate) with the number of arrests and convictions. The gap is appalling.

Wildlife experts in India agree that "our protection system is in tatters. Thousands of forest guard posts remain vacant in all states, leaving our treasure troves of biodiversity open round the clock to looters." Most guards are old and the officers who lead them have little idea of how to tackle poaching.

By contrast, poachers are in the big leagues with the latest weapons, night glasses, sophisticated cars, state-of-the art mobile phones and a battery of top lawyers to defend them.

Caught in this pathetic mismatch is the lion whose numbers are so small that the animal could vanish from Gir in a matter of weeks. And unlike the tiger — which can start breeding at the age of 3 and produce several litters of three or four cubs in a lifetime — the lion is not a prolific breeder. That makes its survival even more precarious.

Obviously, urgent measures must be taken to save the tiger and the lion. Among the first should be to revamp the entire system of forest protection by filling vacant guard positions and hiring professionals dedicated to animal welfare. Greater funds must be allocated for this.

We must not forget that the tiger and the lion are part of India's great wildlife heritage. If we allow them to become extinct, it may well spell doom for not only a healthy ecological balance but also for water and food.
B. Gautam writes for a leading Indian newspaper.


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