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Last Updated: Monday, 5 June 2006, 09:10 GMT 10:10 UK
India's 'old-age home' for lions
By Asit Jolly
BBC News, Chandigarh

Lion at Chhatbir
The crossbred lions are prone to disease
Zookeepers in India have set up the country's first "care home" for ageing and infirm lions.

The $45,000 facility at Chhatbir Zoo in Punjab state provides more space for geriatric big cats - and sanctuary from attack from younger lions.

A diet of minced meat and vitamins also helps compensate for worn-out teeth.

Chhatbir was at the forefront of a failed cross-breeding programme which has weakened the blood pool of India's lions and left many hybrid cats sick.

Zoos and safari parks across India have faced a hard time in dealing with some 300 hybrid cats - crosses between Asiatic and African lions - which are highly prone to disease.

What we hope to do here is to give these proud animals the life of dignity and comfort in their final years
Chhatbir Zoo director Kuldip Kumar

Chhatbir Zoo, near Chandigarh, produced nearly 100 hybrid cats and, left with just 23 ageing lions, the zookeepers recently decided to make life more comfortable for the animals.

Up until now, the zoo's "retired" lions had been condemned to spend all their time cooped up inside small, dark and dingy enclosures normally employed as feeding pens.

"It was becoming very complicated to manage these animals within such small confined spaces and in many cases they became more sick. And we could not let them out in the safari area since the younger lions would attack and injure them," Chhatbir Zoo director Kuldip Kumar said.

'Life of dignity'

Located in the zoo's densely-forested safari area, the new "old-age home" has larger night shelters, spacious and open-to-the-sky enclosures and a discreetly fenced yard.

The yard, which would normally serve as the display area, offers Chhatbir's elderly lions the never-before opportunity to laze in the cool shade of a hot summer afternoon or bask in the winter sun.

Enclosure at Chhatbir
The old lions will have space to relax in the open

Six of the zoo's oldest lions have already been moved to the new facility and are being cared for like elders.

"These animals have almost completely worn-out canines and cannot feed on the usual diet of buffalo meat chunks so they are given specially-procured minced meat mixed with a variety of diet supplements and vitamins," Mr Kumar said.

The zoo's vet, who gives the animals regular medical check-ups, is now exploring the possibility of conducting eye surgery on some of the lions blinded by cataracts.

"What we hope to do here is to give these proud animals a life of dignity and comfort in their final years," Mr Kumar says.

The "home" does seem to be helping the old and sick lions.

Tucked away in the foliage a little way off the visitors' path at Chhatbir, the "home" intermittently resounds with the fearsome roar of these former kings of the jungle - a far cry from recent days when they lay wailing in dark, dingy cells.

Tainted genes

India's Central Zoo Authority (CZA) helped fund the shelter. It called an end to the failed breeding programme - which started in the late 1970s - just over a year ago.

Experts say cross-breeding began when captive Asiatic lions in India's zoos were cross-bred with African lions travelling in circuses.

In the early days, zookeepers were not made aware of the importance of conserving pure genetic stock, and resorted to prolific breeding so that more animals could be used for exhibition purposes.

Indian laws and tradition forbid the killing of animals, so the unhealthy lions will be allowed to die out rather than be destroyed.


SEE ALSO:
Feeble roar of the hybrid lions
16 Dec 04 |  South Asia
India seeks Iran's help with cheetahs
31 Jan 03 |  South Asia


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