With a tiger in New York city’s Bronx Zoo testing positive for COVID-19, the Government of India has placed all national parks, sanctuaries and zoos across the country on high alert. The US Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories confirmed the tiger contracting coronavirus on Sunday.
On Monday, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the Central Zoo Authority and the National Tiger Conservation Authority all issued advisories and directives to zoos and national parks.
Zoos across the country have been directed to remain on high alert, watching animals 24*7 and using CCTV cameras to detect any “abnormal behaviour or symptoms”.
The CZA directive says that no keeper or handler will be allowed in the vicinity of animals without safety gear and PPE, and should have least contact when providing feed to animals. Sick animals are to be quarantined. “I have spoken to the Bronx Zoo Authority and we have come to understand that the virus was passed on to the tiger by an asymptomatic zookeeper. This can happen with us too,” said Dr SP Yadav, Member Secretary, Central Zoo Authority.
“The keepers and handlers may be carrying the coronavirus without even knowing it. So our main intervention is to cut human-animal interaction as much as possible ֫— just like human are practising social distancing. Other precautions, such as frequent hand-washing, also apply on the keepers and handlers,” Dr Yadav said, adding that certain protocols are already in place by the Indian Veterinary Research Institute.
The directive further says that mammals, especially cats, ferrets and primates are to be carefully monitored. Fortnightly samples of suspected cases are to be sent to designated animal health institutes for COVID-19 testing, “while following bio-containment and safety measures”.
The designated institutes include the National Institute of High Security Animal Disease, Bhopal, National Research Centre on Equines, Hisar, and the Centre for Animal Disease Research and Diagnostics and Indian Veterinary Research Institute Bareilly.
The MoEF too Monday instructed all states and UTs to take “immediate preventive measures’’ to stop the transmission and spread of the virus from humans to animals and vice versa, by taking steps such as reducing human-wildlife interface, restricting the movement of people to and within national parks and sanctuaries, and constituting task forces and rapid action forces with field managers, veterinary doctors and frontline staff.
The sanctuaries are also to create a “round-the-clock” reporting mechanism with a nodal officer for “swift management of any cases noticed.’’
Essential services for emergency treatment of animals are to be set up, along with enhancing disease surveillance, mapping and monitoring system through coordinated efforts among various departments. The sanctuaries are also to develop detailed plans of the safe release of wild animals back into their habitat once they have recovered.
Like in the zoos, the sanctuaries will also adopt a system by which human beings will not be allowed near areas inhabited by wild animals. “While most sanctuaries are not close to large human habitations, some protected areas fall in the middle of cities, and we have noticed that a lockdown has not always worked in keeping people away from animals. We will now ensure a complete lockdown, at least around the protected areas. The forest guards are our frontline staff and they have all been placed on high alert,” said Inspector General Forests and Wildlife, Soumitra Dasgupta.
“As far as the communities living within the forests are concerned, they are already a part of our joint forest management and protection committees, thousands of which exist across the country. The committees have also been put on high alert,’’ Dasgupta added.
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