Veterinary experts, top UP Forest Department (UPFD) officials and the UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav himself is crestfallen after the death of four cubs in quick succession over the past week. The one surviving cub, which is yet to open its eyes, is literally the last hope for doctors keeping an eye on him 24x7. After all, it's the future of the chief minister's dream project which is at stake.
Last year, a young lion Vishnu and a lioness Lakshmi brought from the Gir forest in Gujarat had died at the lion safari, raising serious doubts over whether this experiment of transplanting the Asiatic lions in UP would succeed.
"The latest tragedy should not disappoint those involved in the experiment," says Ram Lakhan Singh, a renowned expert on big cats and former Chief Wildlife Warden of UP. He says the Fisher Forest in Etawah, where the expansive 350-hectare lion safari is coming up, had a history of lions over 50 years ago.
"So, there is no reason that lions can't be bred here once again," he asserts, adding rather philosophically: "Failure is a part of trying."
Since the chief minister is himself monitoring the situation closely, there is an unwritten gag order on all UPFD officials. As such, no one is willing to answer any queries on the "sensitive" issue.
A senior UPFD official, speaking in anonymity, said the survival and breeding of the ferocious cat in Etawah was fraught with complications and high risk of initial failure since the very beginning.
"This group (of Asiatic lions) is drawn from a very limited range of genetic make-up, only available in Gir. In such a situation, there is much inbreeding, and thus the mortality rate is high as the immunity levels are low," he explained.
Besides, he said the two lionesses had abandoned their five cubs as they were first-time mothers, and there was no other experienced mother lioness around. But, despite all the odds, the experiment "has all the probability of success" as the ground situation, vegetation, climate and topography are all favorable for lion breeding.
For the moment, the doctors attending on the lone cub weighing just over 100 grams assiduously feed it about 40 ml of milk five times a day, every time with fervent prayers on their lips for the little one to open its eyes and give them the little ray of hope they so desperately need.