Forest authorities in India have sentenced three wild lions to life in captivity. Their crime? Eating a 14-year-old boy that they caught sleeping outside near a lion sanctuary in the Gir National Forest, located in the Gujarat state. Now, all three of big cats will live in cages until their death.
A total of six people have been killed by lions around the Gir Forest in the past six months, The New York Times reports — and locals have been calling for action. So when forest authorities heard about the latest death, they rounded up 17 lions that they thought might have been involved. Bits of hair found in the lions’ fecal matter then helped them identify the male lion that led the attack. Two others — both female — ate what was left of the body. Forest officials say the remaining 14 lions are innocent, and they’ll be released soon.
There's no guide for what to do about lions that kill humans
There's no guide for what to do about a lion that has killed a human. In some cases, authorities decide to put them down. But it's not unusual to let the predators live. A year ago, a lion in South Africa killed an American woman. Authorities at the time said that the cat wouldn’t be euthanized.
Now that the three cats have been "sentenced," the male lion will live in an enclosure at the Junagadh Zoo, whereas the two females will reside in a rescue center, the Associated Press reports. It's not clear what sort of conditions the lions will face in captivity — or how much contact they’ll have with the people who work in their new homes.
Lion attacks are rare, and Indian authorities say they don’t know why the last six months have been so deadly. One possible explanation is lion overcrowding. The sanctuary only has space for 270 lions, but it’s currently home to 523. When faced with that much competition, it’s reasonable to assume that some lions would opt to venture closer to villages — and to vulnerable people. But Anirudh Pratap Singh, chief conservator of forests in the Junagadh Wildlife Circle, told The New York Times that "there is no shortage of prey in the forest."
Instead, Singh suggested that group dynamics among the lion population may have shifted, causing subordinate males to go out and attack humans. He also said that a recent heat wave might have caused more workers to sleep in the open air where lions can get to them. Regardless, one piece of information stands out: in three of the killings, the lions only consumed part of the body, and that’s unusual, according to Uday Vora, the state’s forest conservator.
The lion sanctuary is overcrowded
Lion overcrowding at Gir National Forest has been a problem in the past. In 2013, the Indian Supreme Court ordered that the state relocate some of its lions because it worried that the population could be wiped out by a natural disaster or a disease. But the lions were never moved. Gujarat officials didn't think other states in India would protect the animals, so they resisted the order. The Gir Forest is the largest refuge for wild Asiatic lions in the world.