Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Asia: Where the lion is king, poachers encroach and fears grow.



GIR, India--At the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary here, the king of the jungle is no longer safe.

For decades, the expanse of habitat had been a haven for lions. But alarm bells began ringing again following a spate of poaching cases that started early last year.

Gujarat state in western India is the only region outside of Africa where wild lions still roam freely.

Asiatic lions, which are smaller than their African cousins, were on the brink of extinction just a century ago. Thanks to conservation and other efforts, their numbers now exceed 350.

In March 2007, the carcasses of three Asiatic lions were found in a forested area near the border of the Indian wildlife reserve. Local residents, who are used to hearing the chirping of wild birds and seeing the occasional peacock and deer, were shocked.

M.H. Solanki, 53, who patrols the area, rushed to the site with other game keepers. They were stunned by what they found. The pelts were lying in the dust and the animals' bones had been removed.

Team members also found many small holes in the ground, indicating that traps had been set.

"I have been working here for over 30 years, but I have never heard of any poaching," Solanki said.

Two similar cases occurred in late April, resulting in five more carcasses.

Asiatic lions used to be found as far away as the Middle East as well as in India's eastern areas. Hunting by the elite and wealthy Westerners became such a serious problem that by the late 19th century, the lions could not be found anywhere except for the area in and around Gir.

At the beginning of the last century, the nawab of Gir banned the hunting of wild lions. In 1965, 18 years after India gained its independence from Britain, the Gujarat state government designated an area of 1,421 square kilometers as a wildlife sanctuary. As a result of those protection efforts, the number of wild lions leapt from less than 20 in 1913 to 359 in 2005.

After the poaching case in March of last year, police arrested more than 30 people, many of them members of an ethnic minority group in Madhya Pradesh state, central India, that is known to hunt tigers.

Police believe the group began targeting lions because tigers are becoming harder to find.

In the case of tigers, their coats are much sought-after. Their bones are also sold as raw material for Chinese herbal medicines. Police said they suspect that the bones of tigers are being smuggled to China.

According to Wildlife SOS, a nongovernmental organization based in New Delhi, a dealer will pay a hunter between 10,000 and 15,000 rupees (about 30,000 to 45,000 yen) for each dead tiger. A smuggler, having stripped the animal of its pelt, parts and bones, can expect to earn between 6 million and 7 million rupees per head.

Poaching and encroaching agricultural development in their natural habitat have caused the tiger population to plummet.

According to Indian government statistics, the country had 3,642 tigers between 2001 and 2002. But by 2007, it was estimated there were only about 1,500 tigers left.

With the plunge in tiger numbers, officials stepped up their protection efforts. As a result, the poachers decided to travel great distances and switch to hunting lions even though there are even fewer of them, sources said.

Alarmed at what is happening, the Gujarat state government has implemented strong steps to deter poachers. For example, it decided to increase the number of game wardens in the sanctuary by 170 from 500. Eighty-five of them started working last September.

The guards form a team of several people to watch over about 1,000 hectares of forest to keep a lookout for suspicious people.

In the Nima district in the western part of the sanctuary, three guards of one team patrol different areas.

"We are paying more attention after the poaching incidents," said J.B. Sadiya, 50, a guard with 30 years' experience in the field.

All-night patrols were increased from once every three or four days to every other day.

A pride of five lions lives in the Nima district. Twelve other lions are known to visit there. The guards can distinguish all 17 lions and can track them by their footprints and droppings.

Because the sanctuary is not fenced, poachers can enter it freely. For this reason, the state government decided to pay rewards to local residents who cooperate in the battle against poachers.

If residents catch a poacher, the government will pay 200,000 rupees. If they provide useful information on poaching operations, it will offer 50,000 rupees.

Not everybody is happy with the protection measures for lions because of a growing number of attacks on domestic livestock by them.

In mid-October, three lions appeared around midnight in the village of Bhalchel, close to the border with the sanctuary, and killed three cows. The incident brought to 10 the number of domestic animals killed by lions in the village in 2007 alone. Farm stock is easy prey for lions.

"Since lions are protected animals, all I can do is just to chase them away with this tool," villager Balu Bhai, 35, said with a resigned look on his face as he displayed an ax.

On Oct. 19, five lions were found dead in another village. The animals apparently died when they came into contact with electric fences installed to protect domestic animals. Four villagers were arrested on suspicion of violating the law on the protection of wildlife.

According to the Gujarat state government, around 1,000 domestic animals are killed by lions every year. As villages expand, the number of domestic animals left to graze in areas around the sanctuary has increased, resulting in a surge of lion attacks in recent years.

Officials also noted that wild animals increasingly are venturing out of the sanctuary. Now, an 18-strong pride has taken up residence in a forest scores of kilometers away near the Arabia Sea coastline.

Experts have recommended having more than one wildlife sanctuary for lions. They say efforts to protect the wild animals in one sanctuary have reached their limit. They also note that an epidemic or a natural disaster could wipe out the entire population of animals if there is only one sanctuary.

In 1994, a disease claimed the lives of about 1,000 lions in a national park in Tanzania. After that, a government research institute on wild animals proposed to transfer some of the Asiatic lions in the Gir sanctuary to the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh state.

The same proposal was made again after the series of poaching incidents last year. But the Gujarat state government is opposed to the idea.

"Lions are a symbol of our state," says Navendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat state.

The state government relies on tourism in the form of safari tours, in which lions play a big part, for revenue.

"The idea of transferring some of the animals never got off the ground because of political reasons," said Usham S. Singh, a research coordinator of Wildlife SOS. "The government should first transfer a few lions, say less than 10, to see how they adapt to breeding in the new habitat. If all goes well, more lions should be gradually transferred."(IHT/Asahi: January 24,2008)


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