All is not well for the only free-ranging population of Asiatic lions in the world. In an unprecedented and unexpected development, 23 lions died in Gujarat’s Gir forest in two weeks starting September 12 in what the regional press described as “topotap maut” or back-to-back deaths. According to a report by the Indian Council for Medical Research, Canine Distemper Virus was confirmed in five of them. The deaths of the endangered animals has sent shock waves across the country, with several questions being asked. Were there effective monitoring and screening practices in anticipation of such a contingency? Were authorities prepared to deal with such a situation? Could these deaths have been prevented? And has the lion population in the Gir forest hit a speed-breaker, road-block or dead end?

In a country where wildlife populations are spiralling towards extinction, the success of the conservation of Asiatic lions has been exhilarating and inspiring. The dedicated management efforts of the Gujarat Forest Department have been laudable, and their smug attitude about this success might even be acceptable. The tolerant attitude towards lions of people living adjacent to the Gir sanctuary – based on a culture of harmonious coexistence over several generations – is also praiseworthy. According to the five-yearly census, the lion population has consistently shown a growth of 15%-25%. The population of Gir lions is presently estimated at over 500, with 40% of them residing outside the Gir Protected Area. It was expected as a matter of routine that, in 2020, another increase in the lion population would be declared following yet another ceremonious lion census. But that is perhaps not to be.

Gir lions: Leaving the sanctuary

In a natural system, animal populations are not expected to expand ceaselessly as they will be limited by various factors. Is such growth possible in this particular case, when a wild animal species has been moving far and beyond the boundaries of the protected area?

As the lions dispersed farther out of the sanctuary, the Gujarat Forest Department has behaved like proud parents, watching their children grow up and leave their homes. The popular expressions for this have been that “lions are voting with their feet” and “reclaiming lost territories”. But what is the basis for these arrogant assertions? These statements do not admit to the implications. While lions have certain needs such as space, resources and social or territorial requirements, people too have demands with regard to their quality of life, personal safety and economic well-being. The coexistence may be a happy one, but speaking strictly from the lion’s point of view, this is a challenging proposition with a high possibility of accidental deaths. The frequent capture of lions from human habitations and their release to alternative areas means constant interference with their ecological requirements.

From a management point of view, casualties related to lions falling in open wells or accidents with speeding trains or vehicles are remediable. By constructing boundary walls around wells, building fences, enforcing speed regulation for trains, such problems can be reined in. What about disease outbreaks, especially viral diseases? Viruses are shrewd rascals. They mutate, switch hosts, manifest themselves in different ways, fight back against medications and sometimes recur. How do authorities prevent them and how can they ensure that correct measures have been taken?

Forest guards examine a lion faeces as they patrol the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in Sasan, Gujarat, in December 2014. (Photo credit: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee).

Detailed investigation needed

In the case of Canine Distemper Virus in lions, the susceptibility and mortality of cubs has also been found to be higher than in adult animals. The Indian Council for Medical Research report on Gir lions indicated that two out of the five animals whose deaths were attributed to Canine Distemper Virus were cubs. It therefore follows that we should first examine the patterns and characteristics of this virus. According to the available literature on the subject, the clinical manifestation of Canine Distemper Virus in lions varies with individuals. Serosurveillance or analysis of the blood serum has indicated seropositivity or confirmation of Canine Distemper Virus in the dead Gir lions. Does that automatically prove that Canine Distemper Virus was the cause of death? All animals that carry the Canine Distemper Virus may not die as its expression is dependent on various factors such as host immunity and the virulence of the virus.

The enormity of the current situation will therefore be evident only when the clinical symptoms, post-mortem findings and other detailed tests are all examined together. Given these complexities in understanding the disease, its impact and expression, confirming these confounding factors in the wild would be even more challenging. At this juncture, based on available information, we may be able to say that Canine Distemper Virus had manifested as a symptom in Gir lions, and then went on to become fatal. Diseases like Babesiasis, a protozoan disease transmitted through tick bites (that has been confirmed in some lions too), I believe, are most expressed when in combination with another disease. Therefore, the role of the parasite Babesia for cause of death with other infections needs to be clearly understood. We now need answers to the following questions: Whether lions in the Gir forest carry the Canine Distemper Virus? If they do, was it the cause of death for the lions who died? If the animals carry Canine Distemper Virus, is it widespread in the entire population? Have some adult lions developed an immunity to Canine Distemper Virus?

To answer these questions, the forest department will have to review the following information. First, since there is no guarantee that a given vaccine will be effective, serology reports prior to this incident that are available with the forest department will have to be reviewed. Research also shows that in the Serengeti, in Africa, where several lions have previously succumbed to Canine Distemper Virus, the disease manifested at the time of drought. In the Serengeti case, the disease had run its course even before the forest management could react, or immunisation could be considered.

In the case of Gir lions, we are in a better situation with early detection and the possibility of an informed reaction. However, unlike the population of lions in the Serengeti, the Gir lion population is small and endangered. Any deaths push the cat towards extinction. This does not necessarily mean that every individual must be vaccinated or that “healthy” animals should be confined for screening as there is every possibility that healthy animals might be exposed to infected ones. It has been established that dogs can transmit Canine Distemper Virus to lions. In this case, however, it could have well been any other infected carnivore or infected lion.

Luckily, the Gujarat Forest Department is well equipped, has capable professionals, can potentially network with other experts worldwide. Whether they will care to do so or shut out all critical voices as “mischief makers” or mock every concerned opinion is to be seen. With a cautious approach, they can bring the situation under control if they do not give in to pressure and hurry in order to be seen to be taking action.

The unprecedented deaths of lions in Gir must lead to a series of actions. First, control and containment of the disease. Two, institutionalising the response though disease management protocols. Three, contingency planning – measures that should be effective immediately as well as in future situations.

Control and containment involves rapid steps to be taken immediately to understand the disease, the enormity of its spread and treatment or isolation of affected individuals. With each day passing since the lions deaths were first reported, the forest department is already on this path and seem to be taking some action on the ground.

Institutionalising management protocols involves routine screening of the population based on monitoring protocols for field-trackers, patrol guards and the veterinary staff. The Indian Council for Medical Research report indicates that blood samples alone may be inadequate for detecting diseases of this nature. Therefore, each time the lions are captured or handled, for various other management requirements, appropriate samples for testing in the laboratory need to be collected. The forest department, with its excellent infrastructure and facilities like rescue centres and hospitals within the sanctuary can easily infuse such standard protocols in the field team’s routine activities. Field data collection practices, when strengthened with a good network of laboratories with relevant expertise, will further strengthen disease surveillance and our preparedness for such situations in the future.

Contingency planning to ensure that the lions survive beyond our generation relates to a vision whose range ought to transcend our restricted thinking, political considerations and faith in our own passionate beliefs about conservation planning.

Best step forward

After Canine Distemper Virus was found in the blood-serum of these dead lions, , several misleading media reports suggested the outbreak could have been prevented if the animals had been translocated to alternative habitats. It must be understood that the old argument for a second home for the lions was made on the basis that when situations of disease outbreaks and natural calamities occur, a secure population of healthy animals elsewhere would back-up conservation efforts. The alternative sites should ideally be distant from the source population for these reasons. At this juncture, however, when a disease has been reported, it is best to monitor and ensure lions are disease-free before relocating them to another site.

The forest department needs to now step back, review, admit to whatever the reality of the situation is, and take steps that will benefit the lions.

Conservationists hope that the present crisis in Gir may be just another bump that the resilient lions would have weathered. Since lions have no court of appeal, and we may not live to admit our mistakes, I hope the best moves are made in the coming days to secure the population of India’s pride.

Meena Venkataraman is a wildlife biologist who has been involved with research on Asiatic lions for over 15 years. She completed her PhD from the Wildlife Institute of India. She currently runs her consultancy organisation, Carnivore Conservation & Research, from Mumbai.