India Zoo Official Gave Revered Names to 2 Lions. He Was Punished.

The lions look bemused or even bored in photos but not unhappy. Sita and Akbar had been living together for years. Now in a captive-breeding program in India’s eastern state of West Bengal, they are as married as animals can be.

But many of the humans around them are upset. On Saturday, the authorities suspended a high-ranking forestry official who had overseen the animals for naming the lioness Sita, after a revered Hindu goddess, and her mate Akbar, after a medieval Muslim emperor.

Amid an atmosphere of heightened religious and political tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the country, the lions’ names drew an outcry. Lakshman Bansal, an official of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a far-right group linked to India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, said that when he read the lions’ names in a Bengali newspaper it “felt provocative.”

“It is blasphemy,” Mr. Bansal said by telephone. “And an assault on religious beliefs of millions of Hindus.”

The Asiatic lions, along with other animals like spectacled langurs, two leopards and four Indian antelopes, had been transferred to the Bengal Safari park from the nearby state of Tripura early this month.

Indian zoos have a long tradition of naming animals, particularly tigers and other great cats, after warriors, kings and mythological figures. A cheetah in the central state of Madhya Pradesh is named Agni, for an ancient god of fire. At zoos across the country, wildlife officials said there were many other cats named after Sita and Akbar, who are among the most popular figures in Indian myth and history. Such names help boost the animals’ popularity among children and adults alike.

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