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Gir lions affected by deadly virus last year, vulnerable, may never be freed in the wild

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New Delhi, July 02: 36 Asiatic lions that were quarantined when suspected of being infected by canine distemper virus (CDV) in the Gir national park and wildlife sanctuary last year will not be allowed to return to the forest considering the danger the virus poses if intermingling is permitted.

Canine distemper is a contagious viral disease that affects a wide variety of animal species, including dogs, coyotes, foxes, pandas and wolves. It attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of animals.

Gir lions affected by deadly virus last year, vulnerable, may never be freed in the wild

"A course comprising three cycles of vaccination has been completed. All the big cats are now virus-free and fit," said chief conservator of forest Dushyant Vasavda told Hindustan Times.

But there is chance of lower immunity, their presence can possibly put the lives of other big cats in danger if they catch CDV again and hence the forest department has decided not reintroduced the Lions to the wild.

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However, they are mulling a plan to use these lions for gene pool research, breeding, and animal exchange programmes between zoos.

Wildlife experts had warned of dangers of survival

After the death of around two dozen lions due to the deadly canine distemper virus (CDV) in Dalkhaniya range of Gir (east) forest division in Amreli district in September last year, the state government had announced a Rs 350 crore-package to strengthen the conservation of the animal.

However, the Wildlife experts had warned that presence of the last surviving Asiatic lions at one place could be dangerous in case of a viral epidemic.

In 1994, CDV decimated the lion population of Tanzania's Serengeti National Park, killing nearly 1000 lions. This was a matter of worry to the forest department. The entire Gir forest area was scanned, and 33 lions from Dalkhania range were quarantined to be administered anti-CDV vaccination.

204 lions died in Gir in last two years

Over 200 lions died in the Gir forest region in the last two years. Of the 110 adult lions, 43 died in 2017 and 67 in 2018. Thirty-eight cubs died in 2017 and 56 in 2018.

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Of the 204 deaths, 27 (21 lions and six cubs) were because of "unnatural causes" such as falling into a well or being run over by a train.

The government allocated Rs 21.96 crore for lion conservation in Gir in 2017 and Rs 27.89 crore in 2018, while the contribution of the Union government was Rs 1.92 crore and 1.06 crore for the last two years.

Gir forest is the only Asiatic lion reserve in India. The National Park situated in Gujarat is the habitat of leopards, antelopes, vultures, and pythons along with the lions. According to the last lion census of 2015, there were 523 male, female and lion cubs in the Gujarat forests.

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