Ahmedabad: The recent deaths of Asiatic lions in Gujarat’s Gir forest have once again sparked a debate of finding an alternative home for the rare big cats.
In the last one month, 21 lions have died in the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park due to various reasons, including infighting and virus infection.
Members of panthera leo persica, the lion sub-species now found only in Gujarat’s Gir forest and surrounding areas, are faced with the threat of a deadly disease, which has killed 10 of them between 20 September and 30 September.
According to reports received from the National Institute of Virology, Pune, the virus was found in four cases, whereas traces of Protozoans, spread by ticks found on the body of lions, were found in six samples sent to the Veterinary College in Junagadh, a statement by the state forest department said.
When contacted, Minister of State for Forest and Environment Ganpath Vasava confirmed over the phone that the canine distemper virus (CDV) was responsible for four deaths. “The report for CDV in four (lions) has been tested positive. We are taking all precautionary measures for the safety of all lions."
In 1994, an outbreak of canine distemper virus, which can spread from dogs in the wild, killed around 1,000 lions in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Gujarat needed to relocate some of its lions to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh to avoid the possibility of disease or some other disaster wiping out the entire population. The Gujarat government refused to translocate the lions to Kuno in Madhya Pradesh last year over concerns of its co-existence with the tiger and the difference in the climatic condition of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
“Canine distemper virus is extremely infective. In Serengeti it killed a thousand lions in three weeks’ time. Such epidemics are like natural catastrophes that come without any fore-warning. Translocation is good for lion conservation and one has to only follow the Supreme Court’s order to implement it," according to Ravi Chellam, a conservation scientist.
The rising number of deaths in such a short span of time has been a cause of worry for conservationists and wildlife experts.
As a precautionary measure, all lions residing in the Samardi area were rescued and brought to the Jamwala Rescue centre, and actions were being taken to insulate them from the disease.
“No virus or bacteria has been reported from 31 lions rescued from the Samardi forest area," according to Dushyant Vasavda, Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) in Junagadh.
“An alternate home must be found for the lions if there was a suitable habitat. Canine distemper was responsible for wiping out 1,000 out of 3,000 lions in Tanzania and one must do everything to avoid a similar situation," said H S Singh, a member of the National Board for Wildlife Committee. He, however, said Kuno was not suitable for lions due to its high temperature.
Rajan Joshi, a wildlife conservationist said he had written to the Gujarat chief minister last month warning about the possibility of canine distemper for the cause of deaths of lions. “I strongly believe that a second home is necessary for the lions as their population has started spilling outside the protected areas. Also the government needs to give more support to the local community for better conservation of lions."
The Asiatic lion population spilled outside the Gir forest, as reflected in the Census released in 2015, according to which one in three lions resided outside the sanctuary area.
The 2015 lion census by the Gujarat government showed that the western state was home to 523 lions, a 27% increase compared with the 2010 Census.
The rise in population has forced many lions to move out of the protected area where around 315 lions reside according to the 2015 Census. The lion population is today spread in around 22,000 sq km across five districts in Gujarat.
The success story of Asiatic lions in Gir has become a model of conservation, with constant patrols against poachers. The protected area of Asiatic lions is spread over 1,452 sq. km and includes five regions, including the Gir National Park, the Gir sanctuary, Matiyana and Paniya.
According to the forest department statement, the population has reached around 600.
Around five years ago, the state government proposed to the Centre to notify an area of 3,467 sq. km near Gir as an ecologically sensitive zone, barring any industrial development or mining activity in the area. According to Chief Conservator of Forest Vasada, the matter is currently in the court.
Also, a new conservation area in the Jesar-Hipavadli zone, situated around 70km from Gir and spread across 109 sq. km, has been proposed as an ‘’alternative home’’ for the lions in Gujarat. However, the Centre was yet to clear the proposal, a senior government official said on the condition of anonymity.
Barda Wildlife Sanctuary near Junagadh was also identified as an alternative home for lions but the plan was yet to be realised. The main reason was rapid urbanisation in the area, which saw a large influx of human population, according to the official mentioned above.