Poachers killed three highly endangered Asiatic lions in their only remaining sanctuary in western India, removing their claws and bones and raising fears for the future of the rare cats, wildlife officials said Tuesday.
Rangers at the Gir National Park in the state of Gujarat found the mutilated bodies of two lionesses and a cub on Saturday deep inside the park, said Bharat Pathak, the park's conservation officer.
Only some 350 of the Asiatic lions that once roamed across much of Asia from Turkey to India still exist, all of them in the Gir park. The killings sparked renewed calls from conservationists to set up an alternate sanctuary.
The poachers left the pelts of the lions, taking their claws, bones and skulls - which are highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine - raising fears that a professional gang of poachers was behind the killings, Pathak said.
"Our department has announced a reward of 50,000 rupees (US$1,120; EUR 850) if someone can give a clue about who killed the lions," he said.
While several of the lions have been killed in recent years, this is the first case of poaching inside the protected area. Other lions have been poached when they strayed outside the park or were killed by angry villagers after the lions took their cattle. Hundreds of open wells in the area also act as death traps for the lions.
"This is of particular importance because it happened right inside the park," said Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
"The bones of all big cats are valued in China, they have absolutely no value in India," Wright said. However, the claws are sometimes used for good luck amulets in India, she said.
Pradeep Khanna, the state's chief forest officer, said a request had been made to the government to step up security on India's borders to prevent the body parts from being smuggled out of the country. Park patrols would also be stepped up, he said.
"We will review our security arrangements," he told the CNN-IBN news channel.
Protection for wildlife in India is notoriously lax. Parks do not have enough rangers to keep out poachers. Villagers are often allowed to live within sanctuaries, which leads to growing conflicts between the local populations and animals - particularly tigers, leopards and elephants.
Even a national outcry and a commission set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005 in the wake of revelations that poachers had wiped out every tiger in Sariska, one of India's premier tiger reserves, has failed to stem the killings.
The killings of the lions raised fresh calls to set up a second lion sanctuary. Conservationists fear that keeping all the lions in Gir makes them particularly vulnerable to poaching and disease, the AP reports.
"All big cats are very susceptible to feline diseases," Wright said. "They get hit by disease that runs through the whole population and there is nothing you can do."
In 1972, the government declared the Gir National Park a protected sanctuary for the Asiatic lion, which can be differentiated from the African lion by a characteristic skin fold on its belly. Males also have thinner manes.
However, the government has not succeeded in relocating the thousands of people who live in the forest reserves. The 1,150-square-kilometer (460-square-mile) sanctuary is home to at least 4,000 people and is crisscrossed by a railway track and five roads.
The Indian government has set up a second sanctuary for the lions in the central state of Madhya Pradhesh, but the state government in Gujarat has refused to send any of the lions there, saying they were a symbol of Gujarat.
"This issue has nothing to do with the issue of relocation of lions," Khanna told the Times of India newspaper. "Relocation is not under discussion," he said.