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Villagers fall prey to India's rescued lions

IT WAS the lion of Biblical times and made frequent appearances in the amphitheatres of Rome. It later became the preferred quarry of British hunters in India. Now, after centuries of persecution, the Asian lion is in danger of extinction.

The conservation programme to save the lion in its last natural stronghold, the Gir Forest of Gujarat, north-west India, could become a victim of its own success. The cat that declined to make a meal of Daniel has taken a renewed interest in human flesh, making it less than popular with the locals.

A survey of villages of the Gir by a team of researchers from Yale University and the Wildlife Institute of India has found a dramatic increase in the number of attacks on humans and domestic animals by the only known wild lion population outside Africa.

The researchers warn that the measures to protect the nearly 300 remaining Asian lions could be undermined by villagers who are tired of having their livestock stolen and of living with the risk of being eaten themselves should they venture out after dark.

Vasant Saberwal, a Yale researcher who helped to conduct the survey with colleague James Gibbs, said feelings are running high: 'At some point there is going to be a backlash against the conservation programme. They will take the matter into their own hands.'

A number of lions have already been killed by locals, one within the conservation area, despite it being a schedule one offence under the Indian Wildlife Act, Mr Saberwal said.

The Asian lion, which is tawnier than its African cousin and has a skin fold on its belly and a less shaggy mane, once roamed an area from central India to Greece. The last recorded sighting outside India was in 1942 in southern Iran, when a solitary individual was seen near the Kharki River.

Captive Asian lions, such as Arfur at London Zoo, who attacked a mentally ill man who climbed into his enclosure on New Year's Eve 1992, are the last refuge for the sub-species outside the Gir. However, genetic analysis has shown that many of these zoo lions are in fact Asian-African hybrids and therefore not suitable for reintroduction into nature reserves.

During nearly 100 years of protection in the Gir Forest the Asian lion has increased from just 18 animals early this century to 284 at the last census, while people in districts adjacent to the forest have increased to about 400,000.

Mr Saberwal said that the forest was probably near to capacity when a severe drought in 1988 forced many lions to forage beyond the conservation area, often choosing livestock as easy prey.

The lions also became increasingly aggressive towards people, with a five-fold increase in attacks on humans, rising from just seven in the nine years prior to 1988 to 38 in the four years after the drought.

Mr Saberwal said there had been seven cases of lions eating people they had attacked since 1988. In the previous decade there had been no such instances. The exact reason for the increased aggression is not fully understood, he said.

'When the lions became more aggressive, many of the villagers began to bring their livestock into their dwellings at night to protect them from lion attacks. I know of at least one instance where a lion jumped on to a roof and broke through to get at cattle inside.'

Interviews with 73 men from 56 villages, most of them headmen, uncovered growing hostility towards the management of the lion reserve and government compensation policies. Mr Saberwal said the Indian government provides 20,000 rupees ( pounds 400) for each human death, which is about a year's salary for an adult male employed outside the village.

'Despite the heavy penalties for killing lions, the villagers may decide because of growing frustration to take matters into their own hands. We are concerned that politicians who have no interest in conservation issues will try to manipulate policy. It would make more sense for the forest department to recognise the problem and make changes.'

Mr Saberwal wants a permanent ban on the practice of lion baiting, where a young animal is tethered to bring out the predator for spectators. This encourages the lion to overcome its natural fear of humans, he said.

The lions should also be tagged to monitor their movements in and out of the forest and young lions which have been forced out of the forest by established adults should be removed to other regions or zoos rather than being taken back into the forest, he said.

(Photograph omitted)