Outbreak of diseases poses major threats to big cats including the lions in Gir. A scientific wildlife health management system is the need of the hour.
The big cats — lion, tiger and leopard — are susceptible to diseases as they largely prey upon domestic animals, including dogs and pigs, which are a carrier of pathogens. Domestic livestock constitute over 40 per cent of the food for lions and about 60 per cent for the leopards. Dependency of the tiger on domestic livestock is also high but lesser than the other two big cats. Dogs are the main source of rabies deaths, contributing to about 99 per cent of all rabies transmissions to humans. Cases of leopard deaths due to rabies were reported during the British period. In absence of adequate report, it is difficult to assess deaths of tigers, lions and leopards due to rabies but higher possibilities exist.
The carcass of every rabies infected dog or livestock is eaten by the carnivores, primarily big and small cats, hyena, jackal, wolf, foxes, and honey badger. A few deaths of lions and tigers too were suspected due to rabies attack in the past. Vaccinating dogs is the most cost-effective strategy to prevent rabies in humans and carnivores.
The first fatal attack of Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) and Babesia Protozoa was confirmed in the Gir lions when 23 out of the 26 known infected lions died in a short period in September this year. Tigers and leopards are solitary animals and their social life is different from the lions. Except females with cubs, none of these two big cats live in groups. Thus, the death of each one of them due to such disease is usually not detected, and are reported as natural deaths. In the case of death of a nomad lion or a small group of lions, by virus or protozoans, incidence would have been ignored even with thorough high-level investigation of the disease. But it cannot be ignored when the number of deaths exceed half a dozen in a short period of just two weeks. The presence of virus or protozoans among the big cat is not rare but has never been reported because the science of virology has not been integrated with wildlife management.
In a majority of places, they do not die due to their immunity system. When immunity is lowered against the attack of any virus, the attack of CDV and Babesia turns fatal to the animal. Perhaps this was the case for large-scale deaths of Gir lions.
Two scientific institutes for the first time reported in 2011 about the lion death in Gir due to highly infectious Pestedes petits ruminants virus (PPRV). Active viral surveillance in neighbouring Gir villages for PPRV, similar to CDV, was also recommended by an institute. Subsequently, it appeared in newspapers that the four Gir lions sent to Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, died of CDV during 2014-16. This called for vaccination of dogs and other such animals against CDV. However, action could not be put in place due to some reasons.
Asiatic lions face serious threats to their future as about half of them live outside the core habitat of the Gir forests and hunt domestic livestocks, along with livestock and blue bull. Lions in the peripheral zone also hunt domestic livestock in the villages or maldhari nesses. A large number of leopards hunt dogs along with other preys and sometimes their kills are appropriated by the lions. Probability of transmission of virus, bacteria and other such disease is very high in the Asiatic lions. Epidemic disease risks for lions in fragmented small populations become significantly higher as contact with domestic animal populations, including dogs, become more frequent as a result of alterations in microclimate and landscape ecology.
The tools to predict, prevent, and respond to these risks are not well established in conservation management. But deaths of Gir lions due to the fatal disease is expected to open a new chapter in wildlife management. Crucially, rescue operation and wildlife health management are the best in lion conservation landscape in our country but not enough to address the challenges effectively.
In Serengeti, the lions are prone to simultaneous outbreaks of CDV and Babesia Protozoa. Canine distemper is a virus that affects dog’s gastrointestinal, respiratory and central nervous systems as well as the conjunctival membranes of the eyes. CDV, a disease that results in encephalitis and pneumonia, is transmitted by domestic dogs; Babesiosis is carried by a tick-borne blood parasite called Babesia. Symptoms of the CDV attack include fever, eye infection, discharge from eyes and nose. CDV or Babesiosis alone aren’t the threats to lions in Serengeti. It is a combination of CDV with a high-level of exposure to Babesia that killed the lions in Africa in 1994 and 2001.
Co-infection by more than one pathogen can accelerate expected transmission rates and virulence of a disease. Environmental perturbations can also change the host parasite’s relationship. In a majority of the cases, lion populations are infected with at least one, and most with multiple pathogens, often with multiple strains of pathogens.
Scientists suspected that the disease — identified from blood and tissue samples as CDV — came from domestic dogs in the villages around the Serengeti perimeter. Blood samples from the dogs showed the presence of CDV. In the villages where lions hunt livestock, domestic dogs are very common. Canine distemper spreads mostly via sneezing. It was likely that the virus travelled directly to the Gir lions from the domestic dogs or it was more plausible that the lions caught the virus from other carnivores — hyenas, jackals, or leopards.
Hyenas and jackals are scavengers that frequent villages, and leopards hunt domestic dogs or eat carcasses. Lions would come into contact with these infected species at kills. In and around Gir forests, over 625 leopards hunt domestic animals, primarily dogs. The possibility of appropriating these kills by the lion is not ruled out. A mad leopard, infected by rabies, can challenge lion and what a lion can do to such leopard is well known. Lions are scavengers and they feed on dead animals. These animals, including naturally dead dogs, can be a source of transmission to the lion.
Although two dozen lions died of fatal diseases, similar incidences may be occurring in other carnivores too. Why is it that the wild dog population suddenly dropped in protected areas in central and south India, and then recovered in two-three years before the next drop? Why is it that the number of jackals is registering a downfall? Perhaps, a solution to their problem lies in scientific wildlife health management. Also, the fatal attack of CDV and deaths of lions in a large number can be a lesson to use the science of wildlife diseases in wildlife management.
Alternative home for Asiatic Lions: The Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature published guidelines on strategic planning for species conservation, which have single population in one geographic region. The Asiatic lion is one of them which has the only wild population in the world in the Gir forests. A group of leading conservationists declared that an extinction crisis is facing the world’s largest carnivores, including the big cats. The super cats — lions and tigers — need very large area as they need huge tracts of natural habitat to survive. Due to their large size and threats, they are less resilient than many smaller species and less able to handle the threat.
Big carnivore population, restricted to a single site, face a variety of extinction threats from poaching, intentional killing and environmental factors. Catastrophes, such as an epidemic or fatal disease, remain the main factors for loss of species. Reintroduction of the last free-ranging population of Asiatic lions to an alternative site to ensure their long-term viability became a major conservation agenda. Considering this, the first trial to introduce Asiatic lion in Chandra Prabha Sanctuary in Varanasi was done in 1959 by translocating few lions but the experiment failed after initial success.
Subsequently, the Gujarat State Government ordered the Barda Wildlife Sanctuary in 1979 to establish an alternative for the Asiatic lion, but the decision remains on paper due to lack of a bold decision by the authority. Subsequently, after a long exercise, Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary (Kuno WLS) in Madhya Pradesh has been identified as an alternative site. After a long legal battle in the Supreme Court, decision went in favour of Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, but even five years after the decision, it has not been implemented.
The climate of the alternative site is a major issue which needs examination before the translocation of the animals there. The lion evolved and flourished in temperate and sub-tropical environment, and the climate changes, especially temperature variations, impacted its migration, dispersion and distribution in Europe, Asia and Africa since it evolution.
Review of climatic parameters of past and present lion areas across the three continents indicate that the lion perhaps never flourished in hot tropical environment, and lion habitats may have a high risk of extreme temperature in the hot summer. At present, major populations continue to survive in sub-tropical environment in over two dozen countries, and in small populations in temperate and moderate tropical climate in Africa.
In India, temperature of the Asiatic lion distribution range in tropical climate is around the Gir forest. The shelter of evergreen riverine vegetation along the seven perennial or semi-perennial rivers and Prosopis cover along Shatrunji river or along the coast provide cool environment for the lions. Alternative site for lion in very hot environment of the Kuno WS in the Vindhyayan region is debatable. The logic of the survival of the lion in the north-west India 150 ago in Mini Ice Age (1300 AD to 1850 AD) does not hold ground.
Disappearance of the lion outside Gujarat coincide with the end of the Mini-Ice Age when average temperature in north India was lower than the present temperature. In fact, climate then in the north India was near subtropical. The distribution of the Asiatic lion since its entry in India to the present need examination with respect to the climate.
In background of these facts, the Government has few options which should be undertaken to minimise threat factors which can cause the extinction of the sub-species. First, the science of genetics, forensic and virology should be used intensively for long-term conservation of the lion. Second, satellite areas should be managed in line of Gir protected area by enhancing administrative staff and restoring habitats. Third, an alternative site for the lions should be developed without delay. Barda Sanctuary is one of the good option. Success in this case is high because similar type of administration, with all facilities and know-how, can be transplanted there. If it is not done shortly or not possible due to some reason, the Government should not hesitate to develop an alternative site far away from the Gir forest.
Writer: HS Singh
Courtesy: The Pioneer
The death of almost two dozens Asiatic lions in Gir brings to the fore the challenge of managing the big cats. Nevertheless, the forest department in the state swung into action and did a good job of it.
The death of 23 Asiatic lions (three lions, 11 lionesses and nine cubs above six months) in just two weeks, starting end of September and beginning of October, set alarm bells ringing for the Gujarat Forest Department. Initially, confusion prevailed but progressive deaths compelled the authorities to go for a prompt scientific investigation. Samples of the dead lions were sent to the National Institute of Virology, Pune, College of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry, Junagadh, and FSL Junagadh to find out the possible reason that killed the lions. Samples of five lions confirmed the attack of a virus — Canine Distemper Virus (CDV). The Veterinary College, Junagadh, confirmed the presence of Babesia protozoa in about a dozen samples. Suspecting an attack of the CDV, all surviving lions from the Sarasiya Round in Dalkhaniya Range were captured and kept in isolation at the Jasadhar lion care centre to avoid any contact with other lions.
Another 33 lions from the adjoining area of Dalkhaniya Range were also captured and sent to Jamwala lion care centre. Of the infected lions kept in Jasadhar, all died but three survived as their immune system was better equipped to tackle the disease. Additionally, deaths of a few lions in August this year in the same region due to a similar disease cannot be ruled out.
The Gir protected area (1,452 sq km) and its surrounding forests cover an expanse of 1,882 sq km, which is distributed in 15 ranges, 60 forest rounds and 152 forest beats. The spread of the CDV disease was confined to 26 lions in Sarasia Round in Dalkhania Range. Other 33 lions in the adjoining Dalkhania range were suspected of such an attack, but a laboratory test proved that they were free from the fatal disease. Statistics reveal that only about two per cent of the Gir protected area and about four per cent of the Gir lions were infected by the fatal CDV and Babesia protozoa, although the presence of the virus in other lions having immunity against the virus is not being ruled out.
When the fatal infection by CDV and Babesia protozoa attacked the African lion in Serengeti-Masai Mara landscape, it killed about 1,000 lions, almost 40 percent of the total population of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania in 1994. The first distressed African lion affected by the disease was detected in the first week of February in 1994. Before authorities could understand the problems, almost one year after the detection of the first case, about 1,000 lions died by the end of 1994.
Subsequently, after seven years, in the much smaller nearby Ngorongoro Crater population, around 100 lions suffered a similar higher percentage of losses in 2001. Unlike the two cases in the known history of the African lions, the administration of the Gujarat Government was fast to act against the problems. The wildlife wing of the Gujarat Forest Department promptly removed the entire population of one or two pride from the Sarasia Round.
Not only the Sarasia lions but also 33 lions from the adjoining Dalkhania round were captured and removed from the wild. Prompt action avoided the spread of the disease to other areas. Blood samples and saliva of the infected and also the non-infected lions kept in isolation at Jamwala were examined to investigate the presence of the disease. After scientific inputs from national and international experts, 300 vaccinations were procured from the US to meet the emergency situation. All lions in the enclosure were vaccinated. Subsequently, they were sent to semi-captivity in Devalia Gir Interpretation Centre, a large safari park which covers an area of about 412 ha.
Like several unprecedented measures in 2007, after eight lions were poached by a gang of raiders from Katani, Madhya Pradesh, the Gujarat Government was prompt to initiate several actions to avoid such a threat to the Gir lion. In collaboration with the Animal Husbandry Department, the vaccination drive was launched in both divisions of the Gir forests.
The problem of the big cat’s management is gigantic in the Gir lion conservation landscape. About half of the lions, 300 individuals, roam around in an area of about 12,500 sq km in 1,400 villages in the four districts. The big cat population in this landscape is over 1,200 creatures (over 600 lions and over 625 leopards), which is more than three times the combined population of tiger and leopard in the best tiger landscape in any part of the country.
The electronic as well as the print media have been covering stories on the Gir lions since the last one month. Many stories were far from the truth and were mixed with politics. Many doubted the intention and efficiency of the administration. Remember, nothing is perfect and absolute. How can an administration be perfect? More action is expected to ensure the safety of the lion.
During the last five decades, the lion population in India has increased three-fold, from 180 in the early 1970s to over 600 in 2018. Their wild prey population too went up from about 6,400 to 83,000 during the same period. The conservation story of the Asiatic lion in the Gir forests is one of the best wildlife conservation stories in the world and it will continue to be so in the future. But increasing lion and leopard population in the human-dominated landscape is expected to throw a bigger challenge in the future, despite good wildlife management practices.
Writer: Hari Shanker Singh
Courtesy: The Pioneer
For a long time, the Royal Bengal Tiger and the Asiatic Lion have been stealing the national limelight, but now the Indian leopard is drawing our attention for a good reason.
The two supercats, the Asiatic lion and the Royal Bengal tiger, drew the maximum attention of conservationists in India. But the third largest cat, the Indian leopard, has its own story under the shadow of its two big tribes. Two recent stories — one, the death of 23 lions in Gir due to CDV and Protozoa infections and second, the hunt for a man-eating tiger in Maharashtra — grabbed headlines in Indian newspapers and electronic media.
But this story is about the smartest big cat — the Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), a sub-species of the nine subspecies of all leopards in the world. It is widely distributed across the country — from Jammu & Kashmir in the north-west to the southern part of Tibet in China in the north-east Himalayas to Cape Comorin in the south and from the Gir forest (Saurashtra) and thorn forest in the arid zone of Kachchh in the west to the moist forest of Myanmar in the eastern border of India.
Although a majority of the leopards are confined in India, small populations are also found in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and small areas of southern China adjoining Myanmar. Each of the other seven subspecies of the Asian leopard has a small population, below one thousand, in different Asian countries. After the African leopard, only the Indian leopard has a viable population.
The Indian leopard occurs up to a height of about 5,200 meters in the Himalayas where their habitat meets the lower altitude of the snow leopard. A study revealed that the distribution range of the Indian leopard reduced to 28 percent of its historical distribution range, although the big cat enjoys the highest protection level in our country as it is placed in Schedule-I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
According to an article published in the Indian Forester in January 1907, a total of 811 leopards and 1,355 tigers were officially killed in 1905 to reduce their menace. Level of killing in the preceding year (1904) was also at the same level. Thus, about 800 to 900 leopards were killed annually in the beginning of the 20th century which increased subsequently later.
It was also mentioned that leopards killed 401 human beings and 44,845 livestock in 1905. Hunting licenses were issued freely to kill wild animals, including leopards. A total of 37,720 hunting licences in 1904 and 37,833 in 1905 were issued in India. As per records, 150,000 leopards were hunted in British India during a span of 50 years (1875-1925) at an annual rate of 3,000 leopards. It was estimated that 100 years ago, India had over 10 times the present population of the tiger. By extending similar logic and studying hunting records, it can be said that the Indian forests had a high population of the leopard before the Second World War. Thereafter, they were killed in thousands, which pushed them to become near extinct. However, conservation measures have reversed the trend.
Distribution range: In a majority of the Indian States, the leopards are dispersing in new areas due to which its population is recovering. Until a few years ago, Punjab was considered to be a non-tiger State as the animal occasionally visited in the winter from the hills of Himachal Pradesh. But in recent times, the Leopards have made a come back in the lower Shivalik hills of Punjab, bordering Himachal Pradesh.
Similarly, about two and a half dozen of leopards marked their presence in the Shivalik of Haryana a decade ago. The animal dispersed from the Shivalik of Himachal Pradesh and from the Aravallis hill ranges of Rajasthan to the forests of Haryana. At present, forests in 10 districts in Shivalik and the Aravallis of Haryana have been captured by the leopards in good numbers.
At present, the Indian leopard is distributed in 29 States and one Union Territory. Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh have over two-thirds of the total leopard population of the country. In the 1990s, the leopard’s presence was recorded in 196 sanctuaries and national parks across 26 States of the country.
Since then, the number of States and protected areas has increased and expanded. As per latest reports, the animal’s presence has been registered from 384 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries across the country, although few other protected areas are seasonally or occasionally visited by the leopard.
Area of these leopard supporting national parks and wildlife sanctuaries is about 136,550 km. Of this, about 50 tiger reserves and their buffer zones in 17 States are occupied by the Tigers and five national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in Gujarat by the Asiatic lion. In the rest of the leopard supporting protected areas, the leopard is a top predator but compete with the hyena. Experts believe that though the sanctuaries and national parks accommodate a good number of the animal, a large number of them are found outside these boundaries than those within, and some are using non-forest areas, including scrublands, tea garden, ravines, sugarcane fields and another vegetation cover.
In the State of Gujarat, as per the leopard census report in 2011, about 38.2 per cent of the leopard population was counted in the protected areas, 18.0 per cent in the sugarcane field, agricultural lands, plantations and ravines, and the rest in the forest areas beyond the boundaries of the protected areas.
Leopard population in protected areas of Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Odisha were about 25.2 percent, 44.1 percent and 35.3 percent respectively. An analysis of data from 12 major leopard States reveals that about one-third of the total leopards were found in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Also, based on census reports of a few States, about 15 percent of the leopards used habitat beyond the boundaries of the forests.
Leopard’s occupancy in the major part of 14 tiger States was 173,900 km in 2014. As per the rough leopard distribution range, provided by the Chief Wildlife Wardens and wildlife experts in the States, the leopards occupy about 114,000 km in other 15 States and Union Territories. Thus, the leopards occupy over 287,900 km forest areas of the country.
Tea gardens have become a major man-leopard conflict zone because a good number of them breed and hunt in these areas. At least 5,670 km area of the hilly terrain or slopes in Nilgiri hills (Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka), Darjeeling hills, drained land of Dooars and Terai down the hills in West Bengal and moderate hills and slopes in Assam and other such lands in the North- East States, Uttarakhand and Himachal are under tea cultivation. Presence of leopard and human-leopard conflict in these tea gardens have been recorded for over 100 years. Most of these areas form contiguous leopard habitat with the adjoining forests.
Recently, maximum human-leopard conflicts were recorded in and around the sugarcane fields in some States. Sugarcane cultivation has expanded with the expansion of irrigation network. The adaptive big cat has successfully exploited the dense sugarcane crop for littering. During the last five years, the extent of sugarcane cultivation in India ranged from 44,360 Km to 50,670 km.
Leopards are frequently seen in the sugarcane fields. Majority of such dense tall crops in the four States — Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, which cover about 31.9 percent of the sugarcane cultivation area in the country — are inflicted by the leopard. The animal is also seen in the sugarcane fields in Terai belt in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
A recent paper, ‘Big Cat in Our Backyards’, published by the journal ‘Public Library of Science’, made headlines by reporting up to six resident leopards per 100 km in the sugarcane fields in Sangamner region of Maharashtra. The big cats hide in the dense cover of sugarcane crops during the day, preying on dogs, pigs, cattle and poultry in the night in the villages and towns.
When one or two leopards killed five people in Mandvi Taluka of Surat district, Gujarat in the post-monsoon and early winter in 2010, while hunting and trapping the man-eater, about two dozen leopards, including cubs, were eliminated from the sugarcane areas of the villages in three months. When a leopard killed four people in sugarcane zone in Veraval in Junagadh (Gujarat) in March 2012, a total of nine leopards were trapped and removed from the area. There are several such stories in the sugarcane belt.
The extent of forests cover with canopy density of more than 10 per cent is 683,925 sq km in 29 States and one Union Territory which support leopards. The shrublands and ravines outside the forests also support leopards. In the leopard State, about three-fourth of the forest cover is expected to be potential habitat, although present occupancy area of the leopard is lesser than the potential habitats. The analysis indicates that the leopard occupancy area in India may be in an extent of over 300,000 km, although potential habitat is high.
Writer: Hari Shanker Singh
Courtesy: The Pioneer
The situation at the Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary and adjacent areas is getting worse as the death toll of the Asiatic Lions rose to 14 with three more fatalities.
All these casualties of this endangered species belonging to the cat family occurred within a span of a fortnight. Sources in the State Forest Department confirmed that two lionesses aging four and nine as well as a six-month-old cub succumbed to illness.
“Forest beat guards found carcasses of lioness in Dalkhania range of Gir Sanctuary. The cub which was found ill was brought to a rescue centre, but died during treatment,” said an official. Interestingly, two more deaths of lions registered despite the fact the State forest department has formed 64 teams to screen and shift sick lions to rescue centre to prevent further casualties of lions.
Talking to The Pioneer Chief Conservator of Forest, wildlife circle DT Vasavada prima facie the cause of deaths of two big cats seemed to be infection and some disease, but the exact reason of death would be known only after the post-mortem report.
From the first death of lion on September 12, 2018, the State forest officials are maintaining that the cause of death was infighting and territorial war amongst the lions and there wasn’t any human interference in the death of the big cats.
Around a decade ago in the year 2007, poaching of eight Asiatic Lions created lots of hue and cry over the conservation of the endangered species. The then Narendra Modi led Gujarat Government had allocated special funding to protect the lions in the Gir area.
In fact it was because of Modi’s effort to hard sell Asiatic Lions through a tourism campaign in which Amitabh Bachchan was the brand ambassador, tourists from all across the globe are pouring during winter season to see the majestic animal. The deaths would definitely impact tourism activities in the area.
Writer: Nayan Dave
Courtesy: The Pioneer
OPINION EXPRESS MAGAZINE
Offer of the Month