Many sanctuaries have been powerless to stop the killings. There are not enough rangers, and some may take bribes. Some exasperated states like Maharashtra and Assam have told rangers they can shoot poachers on sight.
While Gujarat’s lions have been spared the worst, they still face the same threats. The International Union for Conservation of Nature changed their status to “endangered” from “critically endangered” based on their numbers in 2008, but noted they were still falling to hunters and poison traps and drowning in village wells.
Statistics are difficult to find, but a reported 34 of Gujarat’s lions were poached in 2007. Another 10 were hunted in 2009 by criminals who passed the cat bones off as tiger parts. Tigers also came under attack that year, disappearing from two sanctuaries in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
“They are not able to conserve their own wildlife. How can they protect ours?” said R.L. Meena, a Gujarat district wildlife warden.
He insisted the state would defy any court order not in its favor. “They will not take our lions.”
Conservationists say dangers outside Gujarat are an argument for better wildlife protection nationwide, but not an excuse for resisting the Kuno lion home in Madhya Pradesh.
“Gujarat is fiercely proud of the lions, and rightfully so,” said biologist Luke Hunter of Panthera conservation group based in New York. “You would think they’d want to take the next logical step in conservation and establish other populations.”
Some accuse Gujarat of using its hold on the lions as a tourism draw. Gujarat fires the same allegation at states willing to take lions in.
The central government supports moving lions to Kuno, but notes that Indian wildlife laws leave decisions to the 28 states. “We will not interfere,” environment secretary Tishya Chatterjee said.
But New Delhi has intervened to protect wildlife before. It launched a nationwide tiger-protection project in the 1970s. In a situation similar to the lions, it ordered the northeastern state of Assam to contribute rhinos for a second population to boost that gene pool in faraway Uttar Pradesh state.
Environmentalists say the need for the central government to protect species is not declining but rising as India’s population and economy soar.
“Conservation in India is not about managing animals anymore,” said Divyabhanusinh Chavda of the World Wildlife Fund in India.
“It’s about managing people.”
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