The virus that killed 30 per cent of total lion population in East Africa was also responsible for the death of five out of the 23 Asiatic lions in Gujarat’s Gir forest since September 12, the Government’s top research body has warned and advised the Centre to immediately take steps to save the big cats by shifting them to different sanctuaries.
The scientists from the Indian Council of Medical Research-National Institute of Virology (NIV) in their report have said that Canine Distemper Virus(CDV), associated with the dogs, was responsible for the death of five Asiatic lions in the Gir forest.
The ICMR, which is the apex body in India for the formulation, coordination and promotion of biomedical research, has also suggested that 300 shots of CDV vaccine are imported from the United States. The report has been submitted to the Union Environment Ministry for further action.
Around 23 Asiatic lions have died in Gujarat’s Gir forest since September 12, prompting the government to launch a massive operations to ensure that the infection does not spread to other big cats in their only abode in Asia. According to a 2015 census, Gir is home to 523 lions, including 109 male, 201 female, 73 sub-adults and 140 cubs.
“ICMR-NIV, based in Pune, found CDV responsible for the death of five Asiatic lions in Gir forest, Gujarat. As such for the first time a complete genome of CDV was recovered by NIV,” a statement from ICMR said. “The sequence was compared to available CDV sequences and it was found to be related to the East African strains. The scientists of ICMR-NIV have also recommended existing CDV vaccine which should work as a protective intervention for Gir lions,” it said.
CDV causes a highly contagious and life-threatening disease in dogs and also affects wild carnivores such as wolves, foxes, raccoons, red pandas, ferrets, hyenas, tigers, and lions. A wildlife expert said that there are lots of domestic dogs living in human communities around the Gir forest, and probably they shared the infected kill. The prevalence of this virus and its diversity in wildlife of India is not studied and only a few reports are available regarding the detection of CDV in captive wild carnivores which included tigers and red panda.
The research body said a 2016 report of CDV infection Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, was confirmed by Indian Veterinary Research Institute where dogs were considered to be the primary source of infection and virus transmission.
“In the past, CDV wiped out 30 per cent of the total population of lions in Serengeti forest areas in East Africa. Considering the threat posed by CDV to the lives of this endangered species, ICMR has requested the Government of India to take immediate steps to save these Asiatic lions, which are heading towards extinction.
“As a precautionary measure, 300 shots of CDV vaccine are imported from the US for the lions. ICMR has also recommended that to avoid extinction of the lions, the animals should be placed in two to three different sanctuaries,” the statement said.
The condition of three of over 36 lions, currently under observation of the forest department in Gujarat, is critical.
There has been regular demand for shifting the Gir lions to other suitable habitats to ensure their genetic survival. In fact, in 2016, a 18-member Supreme Court led committee, led by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) additional director general Bisen Singh Bonal has said that Palpur-Kuno Sanctuary in Sheopur district is “ideally suited” for relocation of Gir lions.