British tourists are paying more than £100 to watch endangered Asian lions kill tethered cattle at an Indian wildlife reserve.
According to local officials, some visitors eat lunch at dining tables as they watch cows and buffalo being devoured.
Animal welfare groups have expressed outrage, saying such gruesome displays break the law and are not only cruel to cattle but also put the lions in jeopardy by bringing them closer to humans. They blame western tourists for encouraging the practice.
According to conservationists, the shows are being organised by tour guides and farmers in collusion with junior park officials.
Only about 360 lions survive in India from a subspecies that once ranged from Greece through the Caucasus and into China. It is now confined to the Gir national park in Gujarat, western India, where the incomes of villagers depend on frequent sightings.
To ensure that tourists do not go home disappointed, tour guides are offering “baitwalla shows”, in which the lions are lured out of the forest towards villages on the outskirts of their sanctuary by cattle tied to tractors.
When the lion picks up the scent, the cow is dragged towards the tour group waiting close by and finally untied so that the tourists can watch it being caught, killed and eaten from as little as 10ft away.
The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) denounced the tours and called on the Indian government’s forest conservator to ban them.
Jaya Sinha, a spokesman for Peta, called on western tourists to give up their “lion and tiger mania”, which, he said, was putting pressure on guides to guarantee big-cat sightings.
“It’s not just the Gir lions. It’s the same in the tiger reserves: there’s a tiger mania. The cats are shy animals, but the tourists go crazy if they don’t see one,” he said.
Using live cattle as bait for protected animals is prohibited under India’s wildlife laws, but the fines are paltry. One act carries a fine of just £1.
Nobody has ever been convicted of the offence.
Domesticated animals such as cows and goats are also banned from the lion sanctuary because of fears that they may spread foot and mouth disease.
The lions’ hunting grounds have been shrunk in recent years by intense cattle grazing, which has led to a cycle of lions eating cows, and cattle farmers killing lions.
According to Peta, local farmers were conspiring with officials to charge tourists for using their cattle as bait, and then claim government compensation under a scheme to protect the lions. For each cow sold as bait, many are also receiving an extra £60 in government compensation.
Maniswar Raja, the official responsible for protecting the lions, said he was conducting an investigation to establish which officials and tour guides were involved in the shows.
“We’re responsible for the lions inside and outside the national park, so it’s a matter of great concern to us,” he said.