Lions to be set free to deal with bandits

CALCUTTA — The government of a state in India has come up with a wild idea to control the menace of bandits who are becoming active again in the country’s heartland.

The government of Uttar Pradesh plans to unleash dozens of lions in the forested ravines to flush out the bandits from their hide-outs.

The 14,400 square-mile Chambal Valley region — with its maze of undulating ravines and dense forests, spread across the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh — has been controlled by ruthless forest brigands, locally known as “dacoits,” for decades.

The gangs these days mostly abduct people for ransom and have been charged in more than 4,000 kidnappings and 180 killings in the two states in the last five years.

The government of Uttar Pradesh plans to let loose 25 lions in the valley, to entertain wildlife lovers as well as to scare away the dacoits.

The lions, from a national park in the western state of Gujarat, will be released in the forests of Etawah in northern Chambal Valley.

“Apparently, the animals are meant for a lion safari park in the forest. But the presence of such large carnivores in the vicinity will be frightening for the dacoits,” a forest ranger in Etawah said. “They were never afraid of hyenas and wolves of the Chambal ravines. But lions will scare them away this time, we are sure.”

The project has been welcomed by Uttar Pradesh police. If it succeeds in Uttar Pradesh, the state will press Madhya Pradesh to extend the lion safari into that state as well, said S.K. Chaudhary, the top police officer in Etawah.

“If no technical hurdle crops up suddenly, by the middle of next year Chambal ravines will see the lions,” Mohammad Ahsan, the wildlife chief of Uttar Pradesh said in a television interview.

Guddu Khan, a 32-year-old Etawah businessman who was kidnapped by a Chambal gang for three months five years ago and was released after paying a ransom of $16,250, doubts the lions would be able to deter the dacoits.

“[The dacoits] are very good hunters as well. They will shoot down the lions the way they killed many leopards, wolves and other wild animals in the area,” he said.

Most of Chambal Valley is inaccessible by police cars and jeeps. About 25 gangs with more than 300 members still operate in the two states and, in spite of chasing them regularly, police have failed to kill or capture most of them.

Chambal ravines were the haunt of famous “Bandit Queen” Phoolan Devi, whose story of rape and revenge was made into a film in the 1990s. After spending 11 years in jail, she joined politics and became a member of Parliament — before being killed in 2001.

Nirbhay Singh Gujjar, 55, who controls a large part of the ravines, is now considered the Bandit King of Chambal. Gujjar, wanted in more than 50 killings and 280 kidnappings, has a reward of $5,750 on his head.

Seema Parihar, another female bandit, portrayed herself in a recent Bollywood film on her life. The Indian government refused her application for a passport to attend a premiere of the film in Britain this week.

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