Thursday, November 27, 2014

How safe are Etawah safari lions?

After reports that lion Vishnu died of canine distemper in Etawah safari, threat of this viral disease also looms over the six Asiatic lions housed on the sprawling safari campus.

Although senior sate forest officials claim that the area where Vishnu and Lakshmi had been quarantined and treated has been disinfected and necessary precautions taken to prevent the spread of the disease, experts said, "The threat of the virus does not completely end if it makes its reach in a particular area."

A senior forest department official revealed that only after a few days of treatment of the lion and lioness ailing with paralysis, veterinarians had come to know that it was none other than the canine distemper disease due to the symptoms that the two showed. But, this fact could never be accepted till the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI), Bareilly submitted its initial report. For face saving, it was officially said that the lions were infected with some unknown viral disease but the veterinarians who were successful in diagnosing the disease through its symptoms gave all possible medication to save the animals, the official added preferring anonymity.

An expert said canine distemper can spread through air and body fluids in animals and according to documented facts, it can affect other animals surrounding susceptible hosts. The disease has been reported to spread from as far as 32 kms from an affected animal to another. It is mainly a dogs' disease which spreads easily in the felines (cat family) including lions and tigers. Going by the logic, the lions at the safari are at risk and should be screened properly, he claimed.

However, principal chief conservator of forests Rupak De denied that the remaining lions can contract the disease. "As soon as Vishnu and Lakshmi displayed signs of paralysis, they were segregated and hospitalised for treatment. Also, all necessary precautions had been taken."

But the fact is that the ailing lions were treated on the same safari campus where the six other lions had been housed, keeps the bomb ticking.

According to official sources, immediately after the death of the lion Vishnu, the area where he had been quarantined was disinfected. The exercise is still in progress, realising the fact that lion safari is a major project of the state government and to prevent other lions from the deadly disease.

A top forest official said on condition of anonymity that the cell in which Vishnu lived has been sanitised properly and now the process has come to an end. He said that the veterinarians treating the lions were also not allowed to go towards the breeding centre where six other lions were housed. "All necessary precautions have been taken as a standard procedure. Also, the six lions are hale and hearty and have adapted to the safari environment," he added.

Interestingly, the thickly populated surrounding area of the safari is home to a large number of dogs and this has been one of the reasons for the spread of canine distemper in the lions. Though forest department officials told TOI that the safari area is a dog-free zone, they could not deny dogs' presence outside safari.

According to the experts the death of the lions is a bad omen for the safari before its start. The death of the two lions has also reduced their already dwindling numbers. According to 2010 lion census, India is house to only 411 Asiatic lions, with Gir housing most of them. The death of the lions due to canine distemper virus is a matter of a serious concern and underlines the importance of their conservation, a veterinarian said.

Now this remains to be seen how the forest department will compensate the loss of two lions in Etawah safari. "Loss of two lions means a loss. This cannot be compensated with other lions. Their death means two lions now less in the total lion population which is a national loss," said Neeraj Mishra, a wildlife enthusiast.

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