BEASTLY TALES - African-Asian lion problem was first spotted in the US

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By It?s the price you pay for playing God. After toying with lion-breeding programmes for years, zoo officials in India are staring at a man-made evolutionary disaster. G.S. Mudur reports
  • Published 26.12.04

Director Kuldip Kumar at Chandigarh?s Chattbir zoo is stuck with a legacy that he didn?t want and that won?t go away any time soon: 30 lions that zoo authorities say should never have been born.

For visitors to the 25-acre ?lion safari? zone who gape at the creatures from inside minibuses with glass-and-grill windows, any lion is worth eyeball time. Kumar, however, is patiently waiting for them to die. The lions ? some of them sick with wounds that refuse to heal ? come from an era when zoo management was all about attracting the most people with the maximum number of fierce felines.

The lions at Chattbir are products of those skewed priorities. They are hybrids, crosses between Asiatic lions and African lions. Uncontrolled and unplanned breeding among lions in captivity, practised for decades until the mid-1990s, resulted in the birth of hundreds of hybrid lions in the zoos.

In one series of ?experiments? that, some wildlife scientists now say, demonstrated the human obsession for the bizarre, Calcutta?s Alipore zoo coaxed lions and tigers to mate and created at least two ?tigons? and several ?litigons?.

A decade after acknowledging those ?mistakes? of the past, India is still struggling to protect the pure Asiatic lion which has become the most endangered among the nation?s big cats. Zoos have vasectomised all hybrid animals to prevent them from breeding and, next month, a team of experts will visit a forest site in Madhya Pradesh for a final assessment to determine its suitability as a ?second natural home? for the Asiatic lions, now found only in Gujarat?s Gir forest.

With the Gir lion sanctuary in Gujarat venerated as the world?s last natural habitat of the Asiatic lion, most visitors to Indian zoos today may expect to see pure Asiatic lions in captivity. But they are far more likely to see such hybrid lions. The Central Zoo Authority (CZA) says that of the 431 lions in captivity in zoos across the country, 300 are hybrid animals.

The flawed breeding practices of the past spawned not just hybrid animals but, devastatingly from the point of view of the health of the animals, high levels of inbreeding. ?Lion cubs were born from fathers mating with daughters and sisters mating with brothers,? says Dr Ravi Chellam, who specialised in the ecology and habitat of lions while at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), and is now programme officer with the United Nations Development Programme in New Delhi.

The high levels of inbreeding within groups of Asiatic lions and within the hybrid lions has led to many genetic defects in some animals. While there has been no formal study on such problems, wildlife scientists cite examples of poor gait, reproductive defects, sperm abnormality, as well as weakened immune systems which means wounds that linger for long.

In efforts not to repeat those mistakes, zoos under directions from the CZA are now breeding only pure Asiatic lions. ?Hybrid lions are not found in the wild and have no conservation value,? says Bipul Chakrabarty, a senior scientist at the CZA. ?We want to concentrate resources for lion conservation exclusively on pure genetic stock.?

?The small number and the geographical concentration of Asiatic lions worries us all the time,? says Professor A.J.T. Johnsingh, dean at the WII. India has over 3,000 tigers and an estimated 20,000 leopards, both species fairly uniformly distributed across the country.

But all of India?s 350 lions in the wild are clustered in a 1,400 square-kilometre area in the Gir forest. ?An outbreak of a lethal disease could be catastrophic. We could lose them all very quickly,? Johnsingh says. Researchers recall the devastation that a virus wreaked in Tanzania?s Serengeti about a decade ago where the lion population in the early 1990s was an estimated 3,000. When the virus struck Serengeti, it killed 800 to 1,000 lions.

The team of experts that will visit Kuno forest in Madhya Pradesh next month will assess whether the forest contains enough prey to support a pride of five or six lions that wildlife biologists have suggested be shifted from Gir to Kuno to spawn another lion population there.

Since Kuno was identified in 1995 by WII scientists as a possible site for introduction of lions, residents of some scattered villages in the forest have been resettled and the number of prey has increased in the patch of 1,300 square kilometres, a buffer forest zone around the area where lions are planned to be shifted. The forests are teeming with deer, wild boar, and cattle abandoned by the former residents. Kuno conservator of forests Jasbir Singh Chauhan says the forest will be ready to welcome a small population of five or six lions next winter.

The proposed project at Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary is designed to create a new, free-ranging population of the Asiatic lion in an area where they once roamed but have now disappeared from. This reintroduction would create not just a buffer population ?readily available to replenish Gir if a viral calamity struck it ? but, over several generations, introduce crucial ?genetic divergence? within the Asiatic lion population.

Only 200 years ago, the habitat of the Asiatic lion stretched from southeastern Europe through Central and West Asia to northern India. But habitat destruction and aggressive hunting ? sometimes triggered by lion attacks on humans ? led to a steady decline in their population, causing them to vanish from everywhere except Gir. Some wildlife scientists estimate that, by the 1920s, the number of lions had plummeted even in Gir to less than 50.

While the government turned Gir into a lion sanctuary and lions began to multiply there, zoos across the country launched their own efforts to acquire as many lions as they could. There was no formal project to cross Asiatic with African lions, most of whom came to India with circuses.

The hybrids emerged when zoo managers, in their enthusiasm to boost the number of captive lions, failed to keep track of who was mating with whom. ?The goal was to get as many lions as possible. The error was that they allowed the lions to breed without checking on their background,? says Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

While African lions are larger, have darker coats and thicker manes than their Asian cousins, zoo directors ignored such differences while acquiring the lions to build up their stock, says a senior CZA officer. The CZA concedes that until the mid-1990s, there were no standards or guidelines for breeding animals.

Some zoos built up their stock of lions just so that they could exchange them with other zoos for other creatures. Inbreeding also occurred among the hybrid populations. Chattbir, for instance, hasn?t received new lions for nearly two decades ? the hybrids have been breeding within themselves ? parent with progeny, progeny with progeny, spawning genetically defective cubs.

The African-Asian hybrid lion problem was first recognised in the US. In the mid-1980s, a team of scientists led by Stephen ?Brien began to conduct genetic studies on what were believed to be Asiatic lions from India in US zoos.

The study, published in 1987, threw up surprising findings: the majority of these captive lions in the US were not pure Asiatic lions, but hybrids. The scientists were able to trace the lineage of some of their hybrid lions to two lions sent by the Trivandrum zoo to the US a few years earlier.

The study was also a wake-up call for India. Genetic studies on captive lions in India revealed the high proportion of hybrid animals. The CZA set up in 1992 began to work on guidelines, which were finally put into place six years ago. Zoos got a new raison d?etre: complementing conservation efforts under way in the wild. There will be no more breeding of hybrids which were competing for scarce resources.

Zoo managers say that at an estimated annual expense of Rs 1,25,000 on food and medicines to keep a lion, the cost of maintaining 300 hybrid lions is over Rs 3 million a year.

The majority of the hybrid lions in Indian zoos are between 10 and 15 years of age. With an anticipated lifespan of 20 years for lions held in zoos, most of the hybrids are expected to die natural deaths within the next five to 10 years.

Until then, CZA authorities emphasise, the animals will be cared for like any other animals in captivity. That would have been apparent last week to visitors at Chhatbir where veterinary doctors sprayed antiseptics and carefully nursed the wounds of two lions that had just been involved in a ghastly fight.

While the CZA has ordered zoos to pursue scientific breeding and prevent the hybrid lions from reproducing, the focus on having animals solely as exhibits endures in some zoos.

?The obsession with freaks hasn?t really gone away,? says Chellam. The white tiger is a mutant that occurs only rarely in nature. White tigers in Indian zoos are believed to be descendants of a single male white tiger, some decided to call Mohan, decades ago. Tigers need camouflage while tracking their prey. A white tiger would stick out like a sore thumb and is at a great disadvantage compared to other tigers. Yet a few zoos continue to breed white tigers for their high exhibit value.

Lack of resources and space in zoos also tends to perpetuate inbreeding. A wildlife scientist familiar with conditions of animals in captivity said inbreeding would be occurring in many other species as well.

In some zoos, an enclosure designed for 10 animals would have 60. Inadequate attempts to continuously mark animals and separate closely-related individuals from each other also contribute to inbreeding. ?Breeding for most species occurs by default rather than by design,? says Chellam.

The CZA says it is now focused on scientific breeding of pure Asiatic lions. Zoos have been asked to keep records scrupulously, separate progeny from parents and whenever possible, infuse fresh blood by using unrelated, or at least only distantly-related animals from the wild or from other zoos for mating. The number of Asiatic lions in zoos has grown from 80 in the mid-1990s to 131 now. But despite these efforts, it could take decades before the Asiatic lion finds itself out of the woods.