Lion hunters move in for kill to supply Chinese medicine market
One lion rests in a pile of dry leaves, his golden mane shining amid the tawny scrub of the forest. A few metres away a lioness fixes her pale yellow eyes on a small group of tourists taking photographs.
The sight of lions in their natural habitat is always mesmerising, but particularly so in Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat, because this is the last place in the world where the Asiatic lion lives wild. The subspecies, which has a smaller mane than its African counterpart, once roamed throughout Asia, from eastern India to Palestine. Today, however, only about 350 survive outside zoos - all in this patch of scrubby forest in western India.
Compared with India's tigers, the world's surviving wild Asiatic lions have received little attention from the media or tourists, even though they are rarer. This may be because, whereas tigers have been wiped out in parts of the subcontinent by poachers who sell their body parts for use in Chinese medicine, Asiatic lions have traditionally lived a less perilous existence.
Occasionally they are killed because they have attacked cattle and some have been poached for their claws, which are used as good luck charms, but they have not been under as much threat as the tiger.
During the past two months, eight of Gir's lions have been found dead, some in heavy steel traps, some stabbed, all with their bones and claws missing. The sight has horrified conservationists because it suggests that for the first time India's lions are also being killed to provide ingredients for the booming Chinese medicine market.
Last month, 17 people - 15 of them women - were arrested near Gir with lion claws and poaching tools. They were tiger poachers from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
'It appears that experts who learned their trade on tigers are now at work in Gir,' said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India. 'A lion skeleton is practically indistinguishable from a tiger's and it would have the same value once it was smuggled into China.'
The poachers probably turned to India's lions because they were finding it difficult to get enough tigers to meet demand, she said.
Pradeep Khanna, Gujarat's chief conservator of forests and chief wildlife warden, agreed. 'There is no demand for lion bones in India. All the intelligence points to an international demand for bones behind these killings,' he said, speaking from his office in Ahmedabad, Gujarat's commercial capital. 'We are really shocked and disturbed by what has happened.'
The news is especially grim because, until now, Gir has successfully guarded its lions from poachers.
In 1965, a large part of the forest was made a sanctuary, protected by guards, and Gir's lion population increased steadily. A 2005 census found 359 lions, which experts say is about the optimum amount for the 1,800 sq km forest.
Now, Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, has pledged US$9 million (HK$70 million) to buy security equipment and provide more guards to patrol the forest.
Conservationists, however, fear the worst for Gir's lions. If India's record on saving its tigers is anything to go by, their negativity is justified.
During the 1970s the government set up a safeguarding scheme called Project Tiger, which resulted in new reserves, more wildlife guards being recruited, and education for local people about the value of tigers. But India now has about 1,500 tigers - a century ago there were 100,000.
In Gir, several busy roads and a railway track run through the sanctuary, making it difficult to police. Lions may also be an easier target for poachers than tigers because they are less wary of people. Here, lions and people have lived side by side for centuries.
The impact of local people is not always so benign, however. In the past two years, nine lions have drowned after falling into open wells used by forest dwellers. Wildlife experts worry that a new law, the Recognition of Forest Rights Bill, which was passed in December and gives forest dwellers the right to own and live off India's forest areas, will make it more difficult to protect wildlife.
But the biggest threat to India's Asiatic lions comes from outside the country. Demand for Chinese medicine, which claims to cure debilitating conditions such as arthritis and rheumatism using ground-up lion or tiger bones, has surged alongside the mainland's growing economy.
If it continues to grow, as seems likely, and India's diminishing tiger and lion population fails to meet the demand, conservationists fear poachers in Africa may start to offer lion bones to the Chinese market.