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Lion Death: What ails the pride of Gujarat’s Gir?

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Ahmedabad, Oct 4: A deadly viral outbreak among lions in Gujarat's Gir forest has prompted wildlife scientists to blame government failure to provide the big cats a second home even after a Supreme Court directive.

PTI file photo

At least 11 lions among 23 found dead in the Gir forest over the past month have died from canine distemper virus (CDV) and protozoal infections, Gujarat state officials said on Wednesday.

According to officials, a deadly combination of Canine Distemper Virus and Protozoal infection is responsible for the death of at least 11 of 23 lions in the Gir sanctuary.

Gir Lion deaths: Is it time to find a second home for Asiatic lions?

The condition of three of over 36 lions currently under observation of Forest department is critical, officials said.

Other lions in the sanctuary are being examined randomly to find out if they are infected by the CDV whose outbreak had killed over a thousand lions in Serengeti forest areas in Tanzania in 1990s.

After death of 23 lions in Gir reserve, concerns about virus that killed 1,000 Tanzania lions

The mass deaths have jolted the government which has launched a number of measures including importing 300 shots of a vaccine from the US to protect the lions.

The deadly virus

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.

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 2012, studying frozen tissue samples taken from the carcass of a lion that died in 2007, IVRI researches flagged the presence of the Peste Des Petits Ruminants virus (PPRV). A UK's Royal Veterinary College had warned that the disease could take an epidemic turn and wipe out 40% of Gir's lion population.

11 lions found dead in Gir forest in 10 days, forest officials suspect infighting

The Gujarat State Bio-Technology Mission claimed to have studied 10% of Gir lions by 2013 to conclude there was no trace of CDV or PPRV in the wild population. In 2016, however, the deaths of four lions sent to Etawah's lion safari park from Junagadh's Sakkarbaug zoo were attributed to canine distemper, reports say.

PPRV or 'Goat Plague' is highly contagious, and can be deadlier than even CDV that wiped out a third of Africa's lions in the mid-1990s. The virus was first identified in Ivory Coast in 1942 and has spread to some 70 countries since then. It is quite good at spreading, both by animal-to-animal contact and through the air. It is very contagious.

Infighting- not the reason

Interestingly, forest department has been maintaining that injuries caused by infighting is the cause behind the deaths of big cats in their only abode in Asia.

Yes, Lions live in prides, and one male lion controls each pride. When the controller of the pride becomes weak due to illness, lions of other territories try to covet the territory, if they succeed in defeating the head of the pride, they tend to kill the cubs and sub-adults and take charge of the female lions.

Precisely for that reason, females are rarely, if ever, harmed in a battle of prides. And that is why the fact that there were three lionesses among the 11 dead, seemed an odd case of "infighting".

Extremely serious, says top court

The Supreme Court on Wednesday questioned the Gujarat and the Central governments over the death of 23 lions in the state's Gir Forest in the last 20 days.

"This is extremely serious...so many lions have died," observed a Bench headed by Justice Madan B Lokur while hearing a PIL relating to preservation of forests in the country.

"Lions must be protected. Why so many deaths...you must find out the reasons and do something to stop it," the court told Additional Solicitor General ANS Nadkarni.

Advice on their relocation, State govt refuses to relent

Fearing that the same fate as that of the Serengeti National Park might await the lions of Gir forest, several experts have opined that it is best to move the lions to other habitats.

Notably, in 2013, the Supreme Court had ruled that Gujarat needed to relocate some of its lions to Kuno, Madhya Pradesh lest a disease might pose a grave risk to the entire lion population in the area. However, this ruling was not implemented. Climatic condition and possible conflict with the existing tigers in Kuno were given as the reasons.

It is also to be noted that in 2009 when Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he entered into a public spat with the then environment minister over the relocation of lions. Ramesh, who then said that it was important for genetic stability and health, Modi, however, refused to part with the "pride of Gujarat."

Gir forest, which is spread across 1,440 square kilometres, is the only abode of Asiatic lions in the world. It showed a 27% increase in lion population (523) in 2015 census as compared to 2010 (411).

According to a 2015 census, Gir is home to 523 lions, including 109 male, 201 female, 73 sub-adults and 140 cubs.

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