Amid reports of 85 Asiatic lions having died in the first five months of the current calendar year, a top official of the Gujarat government on Thursday confirmed that a few of those big cats were found infected with canine distemper virus (CDV) and that the state forest department has imported 1,000 doses of vaccine as a precautionary measure.
The confirmation comes after the detection of babesiosis among lions in parts of Gir forest and establishes that the combination of the viral and protozoal infections observed in 2018 has occurred again and claimed around 32 big cats.
The officer said that as many as 87 Asiatic lions died due to the disease so far this year and that samples of these lions were sent to the Gujarat Biotechnology Research Centre (GBRC) in Gandhinagar for viral and haemoprotozoal analysis. “A few of these samples have tested positive for CDV. But we awaiting a comprehensive report of all the samples sent to GBRC,” said the officer.
The Gujarat forest department usually sends samples for such tests to the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune but this time the samples couldn’t be couriered to NIV due to the Covid-19 lockdown.
The Indian Express was the first to report in May that the death of around 20 Asiatic lions in Tulsishyam, Hadala and Jasadhar ranges of Gir (east) wildlife division in the preceding months were caused by babesiosis, a disease caused by babesia protozoa which spreads through tick parasite. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) had formed a four-member committee that visited Gir (east) between May 30 and June 1.
The committee submitted report said that 85 Asiatic lions died between January and May this year as compared to total 112 and 132 in the entire calendar years of 2018 and 2019 respectively. Of the 85 deaths, 59 were reported from Gir (east), of which 32 were due to the disease.
Now, it emerges that at least some those carnivores that died between March and May this year had contracted CDV along with babesiosis, thus marking a recurrence of the concurrent outbreak of CDV and babesiosis reported in Gir (east) in September, 2018. At least 27 Asiatic lions died during that outbreak while 33 more infected animals were rescued, vaccinated and have been in captivity since.
While CDV compromises the immunity of an infected animal, babesia prozoa makes an animal anaemic by attacking its red blood cells, compromising its haematological functions. The highly contagious CDV affects animals of canine species and transmits through body fluids and feces. Babesia protozoa spreads through tick parasites quite common among cattles.
The 2018 outbreak was the first CDV outbreak on record affecting Asiatic lions in Gir forest. The forest department surveyed almost all the predators in Greater Gir lion landscape, rescued around three dozens and vaccinated many animals. The forest department then imported 1,300 doses of purevax ferret distemper vaccine from the US and administered 1,100 dozes of them to animals in Gir. Now, forest officers say that 1,000 more shots of the same vaccine have been delivered. “This is a precautionary measure. We can’t be running to purchase a vaccine after an outbreak happens,” said a top officials, adding the imported vaccine was not very costly.
While the Central expert committee report didn’t specify the exact cause of deaths of the lions, it recommended that samples of diseased animals be sent to more than one national accredited labs.
Shyamal Tikadar, principal chief conservator of forests and chief wildlife warden of Gujarat, refused to comment on the report of the Central team. “The Committee has not marked a copy of their report to us and therefore we are not aware about its content. However, we shall keep sending sample to NIV,” he said.
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