Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav’s demand in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday for a probe into the death of “his lions” is now being seen as a desperate attempt to salvage his dream of making Etawah lion safari an ecotourism hub.
The death of the lions has put the Rs 100-crore lion safari spread across 150 acres under a severe strain. A few environmentalists and wildlife experts who do not wish to be named have suggested that the safari be shut down. It has lost four lions and five cubs since September 2014.
And there could be more deaths. Another lioness Girishma is now half paralysed. Experts are calling for euthanasia to end her pain.
“The safari has not been able to tide over the problem of feline mortality. The government has done everything it can do. It is the wildlife machinery that is failing the safari,” said Dr Sandeep Paul, a vet and a whistle-blower.
Dr Paul was the first to point out way back in September 2014 that the lion named Vishnu had died of canine distemper. He faced ridicule from top state wildlife officials who felt an outsider had no business to dispute their findings. Wildlife officials believed that Vishnu died of leptospira and babesia.
But Dr Paul stood vindicated after the autopsy report of the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI), Bareilly, confirmed canine distemper virus (CDV) in Vishnu’s lymph node.
Vishnu’s partner Lakshmi, who died within two weeks of his death, was found CDV positive in brain tissue.
Tapasya and Kuber, the other pair that died this year, also had canine distemper. And Girishma is battling with the same virus.
“They didn’t pay heed in 2014 and when they realised, it was too late. Now, I fear for Pataudi, Jessica, Kunwari, Gigo and two others,” said Dr Paul.
Canine distemper virus that spreads through the dogs killed nearly 1,000 lions in Tanzania recently, and wildlife experts believe Asiatic lions in India are now catching the infection. Some say that Gir, from where four lions were brought to Etawah, is also not free of the virus.
The deaths have hit the state government’s efforts to open the safari before the assembly election early next year. The government has undertaken vaccination of stray dogs on a massive scale and has involved foreign wildlife experts such as Jonathan Cracknell, director of Longleat Animal Safari & Adventure Park in England. He is an expert in infectious disease management. Cracknell visited the Safari in January this year.
The Etawah lion safari is also in touch with experts at Washington’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI).
The government also sent its veterinary and officials from different zoos to learn how Gir is managing a better survival rate of felines. The number of lions has risen by 23% at Gir in the last five years. The survival rate of cubs crossing the age of two years is 35% that is more than the national average.
Deputy director of the Etawah lion safari, Dr Anil Patel said it was a unique project that involved rehabilitating lions in a new geographical area.
“The other lions are hale and hearty and we will make the project a success,” he said, adding “there are no standard vaccines or cure available for canine distemper”.