In India, there is a place where Asiatic lions should be thriving, but instead they are mysteriously dying. It’s called the Lion Safari, and its purported goal is to help reintroduce the nearly-extinct Asiatic lion to areas in India where this species used to live. The small lion breeding program is situated near the town of Etawah, which is the hometown of Akhilesh Yadav, the incumbent Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. In the past year, at least seven lions have died at the facility, including two adult lions last fall and five newborn cubs this summer. This means that all of the lion cubs born at the facility so far have died soon after birth. The worst part about this tragedy is that nobody outside the park really knows why the lions are dying.

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CM Yadav has championed the Lion Safari as a pet project for years; it’s a passion he inherited from his father, former Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav who originally conceived the concept in 2005. The Lion Safari, as of right now, consists of a few buildings and acres of fenced land and it, quite frankly, looks more akin to a prison yard than a place where wild animals might thrive. Spread over 50 acres of land with another 300 acres being kept as buffer zone, the project has been marred by the consistent deaths, raising serious questions on the infrastructure being used in maintaining the Safari.

The breeding program that isn’t

For a breeding program, there have been an exceptional number of lion deaths at the safari. Four pair of Asiatic lions were brought in for breeding between April and September 2014. One of the females died in October, followed by a male on November 16 – both reportedly of heart failure. Two of the lionesses gave birth this summer – just four days apart in July. Two cubs from the first mother lion died within 24 hours of their birth, and another two of three that were born four days later also died shortly after being born. At that time, government representatives admitted that these losses were a tragedy that “[left] officials clueless on how to protect the felines.”

The entire program was fraught with controversy surrounding the deaths of the first four cubs born at the park this summer. The park’s sitting director K K Singh was removed in early August and transferred to another program. His transfer came after he was charged with attempted murder for assaulting a park employee who spoke to the media about the cubs’ deaths.

Despite the unrest within the leadership of the Lion Safari itself, government officials have reportedly been taking the deaths seriously, for what it’s worth. When news broke that the first four cubs had died within days of their births, India’s senior Forest officials, including Chief Wildlife Warden Rupaq De, moved into a temporary camp at the Lion Safari to investigate. The Forest department’s Principal Secretary Sanjeev Saran confirmed to The India Express that senior officials were camping at Etawah, but it’s unknown how long that vigil lasted. “Doctors have been called in from Gujarat and all efforts are on to save the sole remaining cub,” he said in early August. That surviving cub was reportedly being bottle fed, and there was no update on the cub’s condition for two weeks, until it was announced that the remaining cub had passed away on August 14.

It’s unclear whether government representatives remain at the center now, and what if any actions will be taken to prevent future losses of life. Throughout this debacle, the Lion Safari management has been tight-lipped with the media. For some time, prior to the death of the last cub, the park was turning away members of the media at the gate, and personnel did not respond to inquiries from The India Express or from Inhabitat.

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Saving an endangered subspecies

The population of Asiatic lion, also known as Indian lions, are a subspecies considered endangered since 2008. The majority of the lions live in Gir Forest National Park, where a successful breeding program has been raising and releasing entire prides of lions. Since 2010, lion numbers have slowly but steadily increased, and the most recent 14th Asiatic Lion Census 2015, conducted in May 2015, counted 523 individuals, a 27 percent increase compared to 2010 numbers. At the Gir sanctuary breeding program, four lionesses gave birth to a total of 11 lion cubs earlier this summer and, as far as we can tell, all have survived.

With such successful breeding programs elsewhere in Indian, it’s a little perplexing that this one little center in Uttar Pradesh would even try. It’s certain that, given such a faulty start, the Etawah Lion Safari won’t be responsible for replenishing the subspecies anytime soon. This is a project backed with the passion of powerful people, but executed with tragic results. Until that changes, the Lion Safari could be viewed as more of a hindrance to lions in India than a help.

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What’s next?

After losing all five cubs that have been born in the breeding program, in addition to the two adults who died last fall, the Lion Safari is not in a very healthy position. The center has been widely criticized for having inadequate staff to manage the big cats, especially given the talk about adding other types of animals to the park in the future, such as leopards, deer, bears and antelopes. As far as the breeding program goes, it’s back to square one but safari management isn’t ready to give up.

“Sadly, all the five cubs died but we are starting afresh. We are hopeful of the next round of breeding and pregnancy among the lioness,” said Sanjay Srivastava, the newly-appointed director of the Etawah Lion Safari. Srivastava took over the post from temporary director Anil Patel, who was placed in charge of the Lion Safari after its original director was charged with attempted murder.

Despite the complete lack of stability of the wildlife population at the Lion Safari, members of the government are still holding on to a bold vision for the future of the park. The hope is that, with a successful breeding program, the center can be developed into a tourist destination. Our investigation was unable to ascertain how serious this endeavor might be or what kind of timeline is associated with it, but the government has reached out to at least one firm for a design proposal. Archohm is the India-based architecture and design firm behind the concept for the tourist park, featured above. Designers Amit Sharma, Naveen Rawat, Gaurav Dixit collaborated on the concept for an impressive entry gate to the safari park, which features an enormous sculptural wall with the cut-out silhouette of a majestic male lion, positioned as an arch over the roadway, inviting visitors to cross the threshold from the outside world into the lions’ domain.

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Archohm told Inhabitat that the firm “felt the need for a holistic development of the site and hence took the initiative of designing the whole stretch between the entry to the site and the view point from where the lions can be seen very closely.” The results are sprawling and attractive, if a bit idealistic. The firm hasn’t been officially hired for the project, and it’s unknown whether other design firms were asked to submit proposals. If the Uttar Pradesh Tourism Department accepts the proposal, it would have to find financing for the construction as well.

As lovers of wildlife and believers in conservation, we’re astounded that we’ve just recently learned about the tragic losses at the Etawah Lion Safari. We hope to hear good news from the park soon, such as the addition of more trained veterinarians and eventually, as the center director suggested, the promise of more lion cubs. What we know for certain is that the government of Uttar Pradesh cannot continue to push forward for the development of a tourist park until those working in the breeding program figure out how to keep the lions alive.

+ Etawah Lion Safari

Images via Etawah Lion Safari and Studio Archohm