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Saturday, Dec 14, 2019

33 quarantined Gir lions may never stalk the wild

Having recovered after nine months in quarantine at Jasadhar animal care centre and Devaliya interpretation zone at Junagarh, the big cats are roaring to go free.

india Updated: Jul 01, 2019 08:14 IST
Hiral Dave
Hiral Dave
Hindustan Times, Ahmedabad
The state forest department is now charting out a plan to use these lions for gene pool research, breeding, and animal exchange programmes between zoos.
The state forest department is now charting out a plan to use these lions for gene pool research, breeding, and animal exchange programmes between zoos.(REUTERS FILE PHOTO)
         

Thirty-three Asiatic lions, who were affected but survived the outbreak of canine distemper virus (CDV) in the Gir national park and wildlife sanctuary last October, have been left permanently vulnerable to the deadly virus and will not be reintroduced to their natural habitat for the rest of their lives, according to Gujarat forest department officials.

Having recovered after nine months in quarantine at Jasadhar animal care centre and Devaliya interpretation zone at Junagarh, the big cats are roaring to go free. But none of them will be allowed to return to the forest because of the danger the virus poses to them and to about 600 other lions in the sanctuary if intermingling is permitted, the officials said.

The state forest department is now charting out a plan to use these lions for gene pool research, breeding, and animal exchange programmes between zoos.

“A course comprising three cycles of vaccination has been completed. All the big cats are now virus-free and fit,” said chief conservator of forest Dushyant Vasavda.

But various issues -- lower immunity to this contagious gastrointestinal and respiratory ailment, possible territorial fights on reintroduction in the wild, and reduced hunting capabilities -- have led the experts to keep the lions from roaming free in the wild.

“All the 33 lions that were quarantined for the CDV treatment will now remain in permanent captivity,” said MM Sharma, principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife).

“As these 33 lions have been affected once, not only are they vulnerable to the diseases but their presence can possibly put the lives of other big cats in danger if they catch CDV again. Besides, as lion is a territorial animal, their reintroduction to the wild would lead to infighting as their previous territories have been claimed by other prides,” he told HT.

In 2018, 25 Gir lions died in territorial fights.

Earlier found in several parts of the Asian continent, since the beginning of the 20th century, Gir has become the last abode for the Asiatic lion.The 33 affected lions were rescued from Dalkhaniya Range (Amreli district) in Gir east. The forest is divided into two administrative parts – east and west.

At the end of nearly nine months of captivity and treatment, doubts have also been raised on their hunting capacity, raising the risk of the big cats feeding on easily available but possibly contaminated food. The chances of them turning into maneaters have also not been ruled out.

Spread across 1400 sq km, the Gir national park and wildlife sanctuary is now filled to the brim. As per the state government’s latest estimate, the forest is home to about 600 lions, despite the death of 204 lions in 2017 and 2018. As per the last census in 2015, Gir had 523 lions.

In the 1990s, CDV killed around 1,000 lions in the African country of Tanzania. So it was no surprise that the CDV deaths in Dalkhania range worried the state forest department . The entire Gir forest area was scanned, and 33 lions from Dalkhania range were quarantined to be administered anti-CDV vaccination.

Seventeen lions died due to CDV in September-October 2018. The forest department reported that three lions died in the same period due to infighting, whereas the cause of three other deaths could not be ascertained.

Local environment activists criticise the forest department’s move of preventive anti-CDV vaccination for the 33 lions. “We feel the decision for CDV vaccination was taken in haste and showed inexperience. If it was only a precautionary move, then isolation for a short period and release in the wild at the earliest would have been a better solution. Three cycles of vaccination prolonged the lions’ isolation,” said, Razak Bloch, convener of Gujarat State Environment Conservation Committee.

Sharma, however, says it’s an opportunity to include some the 33 lions in the gene pool project “started to boost the genetic diversity of the Asiatic lions”. “Besides, Gujarat has never been able to meet the demand of exchange programme for lions with other state zoos. This will help us strengthen the exchange programme,” he said.

Anish Andheria, president of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, said that the decision of the Gujarat forest department made sense. “These lions have spent months in captivity and therefore, their healthy release in the wild is an almost impossible task. Moreover, Gir has a good population of lions and the lions’ release will create more problems for native animals than providing any solution. If the lions are released back, there could also be possibility of infighting, which could lead to casualties of cubs,” he said.