First time in many years that so many deaths have been attributed to a virus
While Gujarat officials are grappling with the death of 21 lions in the last month, wildlife experts say that more than the numbers it’s the fear of a mutation in a virus as the likely cause of deaths that’s perturbing.
In 1994, the Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) was responsible for an epidemic in the Serengetti region of Africa, where 1,000 lions died in 3 weeks. While the virus abounds in local tiger populations in Gujarat and is linked to deaths every year, this year it has seen a spike.
This is the first time in years, that so many deaths have been attributed to the virus, said Y.S. Jhala, a senior scientist, an expert on lions, at the Wildlife Institute of India.
“Rumours are that it maybe a new mutation …that may have jumped a host from dogs to lions. But it’s still to be confirmed,” he said in a phone conversation.
The WII, which is a body under the Union Environment Ministry, had sent a member as part of a Central team to investigate the lion deaths.
The last lion census in 2015 recorded 523 individuals and with a 3% growth, there were about 600 at present, said H.S. Singh, a member of the National Board for Wildlife. However, every year 80-90 lions died due to various causes. “For members in the cat family, a 20% (annual) death rate would still see the species’ overall numbers increase,” Mr. Singh told The Media. Last year there were 100 deaths and before that 80, he added.
There’s no official estimate so far of how many lions have died this year.
Because many of the Gir lions live outside protected areas and are in contact with domestic dwellings, their susceptibility to new pathogens has risen, he said.
Being a virus, there’s no specific treatment and the government was importing a vaccine from the United States as a preventive measure against future outbreaks. Mr. Jhala cautioned against the use of a vaccine.
“It would be stupid to vaccinate wild lions because it’s likely to compromise their immunity against future infections. These are wild animals and not ones in a zoo,” he added.
According to the State Forest Department, 11 lions died between September 12 to 19 in Gir’s Dalkhania and Jasadhar range. Out of those 11 deaths, carcasses of seven lions were found in the forest areas while four lions died during treatment.
Moreover between September 20 to 30, 10 more lions rescued from Dalkhania range have died during the treatment, taking the toll to 21.