Last year, on one of his many pit stops on the campaign trail, Narendra Modi picked an unusual subject for electioneering – lions. While addressing a rally in Bareilly, the then Gujarat chief minister attacked his Uttar Pradesh counterpart Akhilesh Yadav and his father Mulayam Singh Yadav, claiming that they were incapable of caring for the Asiatic lions that Gujarat had given to Uttar Pradesh.

Unfortunately, Modi’s poll-time barb proved to be a prognostication.

In the last two months, five Asiatic lion cubs have died at the lion safari and breeding centre in Etawah, putting a question mark on the future of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s pet project. Two cubs died within two days of their birth on July 18. The safari lost two more cubs in late July. In a desperate bid to save the final surviving cub, the safari authorities separated it from its mother and fed it goat milk. But it too died on August 14.

“Sadly, all the five cubs died and we have to start from scratch,” said Sanjay Srivastava, director of the Etawah lion safari. “Usually, the cubs born to first-time mothers have slim chances of survival. Our hopes are pinned on the next round of breeding.”

These weren’t the first setbacks to befall the safari: last year, a lioness called Lakshmi and a lion named Vishnu died there, despite the many efforts to save the pair brought from Hyderabad in 2014. All the surviving pairs – Girishima and Kuber, Heer and Gigo, Manan and Kunvari – at the safari now are from the Gir forests of Gujarat.

Darling project

The safari is a darling project of Mulayam Singh Yadav. In 2005, his government in Uttar Pradesh conceived the project as a smaller version of England’s Longleat National Safari Park which draws thousands of tourists all year round. The location for the project was an unsurprising choice, given its proximity to Saifai, the citadel of the Samajwadi Party.

Four hundred hectares of land was acquired for the project – with 350 hectares meant for the lion enclosure and 50 hectares for the safari – and Rs 100 crore sanctioned for it. Elections, however, held everything up. After his party was routed in the 2007 assembly polls, the project gathered dust as the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samajwadi Party government chose to ignore it.

Upon its return to power in 2012, the Samajwadi Party again trained its focus on the safari – permission was obtained from the central government, and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav personally monitored its development. To populate the grounds, the government obtained one pair of Asiatic lions from Hyderabad and three pairs from Gujarat. The Samajwadi Party chief promised to complete the safari by 2017, before the next state elections.

That deadline appears unattainable now following the deaths of the five cubs. Reacting to the loss, principal chief conservator of forest wildlife Rupak Dey recently said, “A lion keeper and a team of veterinarians have been sent to Gujarat to observe the behaviour of lions and of pregnant lionesses. The team will submit a report on the precautions we need to take.”

Different focus

As things stand, two remaining lionesses Heer and Girishma at the breeding centre are unlikely to breed anytime soon after the death of their cubs, while the third, Kunwari, is reported to be ill. Even if they somehow give birth, cubs cannot be released into the safari for 2-3 years, say wildlife experts. Besides, releasing two-three pairs of lions will mean little since it will be hard for tourists to spot them.

Experts are now divided on the continuation of the project. Old gazetteer records show the presence of animals like wolf, hyena, sambhar and panther in Etawah, but no Asiatic lions. Others, however, note that since there isn’t much climatic difference between Gujarat and Etawah, the Asiatic lions could theoretically survive in Etawah too.

Reports suggest that Akhilesh Yadav is considering converting the “lion safari” into an “animal safari” by bringing in leopards, deer, bears and antelopes – at least until new lion cubs can be reared and released into the grounds. This way, even if not lions, the Samajwadi Party will have something to show to the electorate during the 2017 polls.