AHMEDABAD, India - Wildlife experts voiced anger Monday at the death of nine endangered lions in floods in western India, saying it showed that at least some of them should be relocated to preserve their numbers.
Devastating floods triggered by annual monsoon rains last week killed at least 55 people in the state of Gujarat, which is also home to about 500 Asiatic lions in their last remaining sanctuary globally.
Gujarat's chief wildlife officer S.C Pant said 100 forest officers were searching the banks of a flooded river that runs alongside the Gir sanctuary after eight lion carcasses were found, while another which was rescued later died.
"Already 27 lions have been tracked near villages near the river. They are in good condition," Pant told AFP.
But wildlife expert Ravi Chellam said the floods were evidence that the survival of the species was at risk because the lions were living in only one sanctuary.
"There is no way to predict the occurrence of catastrophes, which is why it is crucial to establish at least one more free-ranging population of lions before such risks manifest again," Chellam, who has studied the animals in Gir for years, told AFP.
The lions were caught in a legal and political battle in 2013 when the Supreme Court ruled that some of them should be relocated to a sanctuary in a neighbouring state.
Experts argued that restricting the lions to just one area put them at risk of inbreeding, disease and extinction.
But the Gujarat government has resisted any move from the state, where the lions are a source of pride, to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh state which says it has the expertise to manage them.
Pant rejected what he was said was an attempt to "exploit" the tragic deaths.
"An isolated incidence of flooding cannot be the reason for shifting the lions to other states," he said.
The cats are a sub-species of lion which are slightly smaller than their African cousins and have a fold of skin along their bellies.
Census figures released in May show the population has increased in recent years to 523.