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MUZAFFARABAD: An endangered subspecies of big cats has been spotted in a national park of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), much to the gladness of conservationists, a wildlife official claimed here on Tuesday.

Chaudhry Mohammad Razzaq, AJK wildlife and fisheries department director, said spotting of Asiatic lion, zoologically known as Panthera leo persica, was repeatedly reported from Deva Vatala National Park, spread over 7,482 acres in the southernmost Bhimber district.

Over the last five years, the wildlife department had been occasionally receiving reports about sighting of a lion by the residents or shepherds in the national park area, Mr Razzaq told Dawn.

“However, when the latest report to this effect was received from a herder in November last year I deputed a local wildlife watcher Mohammad Ashfaq for verification of the claims after giving him training for two months,” he said, adding that the watcher finally spotted the large tawny-coloured cat near Bun Cheer locality in the upper parts of the park at midday on January 31.

Giving details, Mr Razzaq said, the watcher who was accompanied by a friend suddenly came across the big cat, lying on the ground barely 20 feet ahead of them. As the large animal roared, the panicky watcher and his friend fled for their safety and in the meanwhile it disappeared in the dense forests, he added.

Mr Razzaq said the duo saw the lion once again after half an hour, as it was walking towards the Line of Control (LoC).

According to him, it was highly likely that the lion would have come from Indian-held Kashmir.

“However, repeated reports over the past few years and latest spotting suggests that the lion has settled down in the park area,” he said.

Mr Razzaq said: “We will carry out further studies with the help of Worldwide Fund for Nature Pakistan (WWF-P) to ascertain and assess the lion’s presence and population in our area. We will ensure survival of the animal by all means,” he said.

Mr Razzaq pointed out that Asiatic Lion was the third big cat that had been spotted in AJK after common leopard (Panthera pardus) and snow leopard (Panthera uncia).

The Asiatic lion, also known as the Indian lion, has been listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered species on account of its small population size.

It exists as a single isolated population in Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Gujarat, which is regarded as the sole home of the Asiatic Lions and also one of the most important protected areas in Asia due to its supported species.