The Supreme Court and the Gujarat High Court on Wednesday took note of the deaths of 23 lions in the Gir forest since September 20 and sought a response from the Centre and the state government, reported the Hindustan Times.

“Today, we are faced with a peculiar problem. Lions are dying,” a Supreme Court bench of Justices MB Lokur, S Abdul Nazeer and Deepak Gupta told Additional Solicitor General ANS Nadkarni said. “There seems to be some kind of virus. We do not know. It is coming in newspapers. You find it out.”

The Supreme Court was hearing a petition related to the relocation of cheetahs from Namibia to India. Advocate Ritwick Dutta, opposing the relocation, drew the court’s attention to the lion deaths and said that Gir’s lion population could be eliminated by a possible virus infection. Dutta claimed that the deaths had sparked a fear of the epidemic spreading to other animals.

Between September 12 and 19, officials had found carcasses of 11 lions in the Gir forest, prompting the state government to order an inquiry. Ten more lions, who were shifted to a rescue centre, died between September 20 and 30. Two more lions died in Gir forest on Tuesday, taking the total number of deaths since last month to 23.

All the lions lived in Gir Sanctuary’s eastern range of Dalkhania. Officials had last month said the deaths appeared to be caused by infighting and infection. In four cases, canine distemper virus is suspected to be the cause, and 17 animals were infected by a protozoa spread by ticks. The vaccines for the virus are expected to be delivered from the United States in a day, the Gujarat government said on Wednesday.

“What are you doing on the issue of lions?” asked Justice Lokur. “It is very serious.”

After Nadkarni told the bench that the lions cannot be moved outside Gir until their area of relocation is ready, the Supreme Court asked him to look into the cause of deaths. Nadkarni replied that a matter related to lions in Gujarat was already pending in the top court, reported The Indian Express. The court will next hear the matter on October 29.

A division bench of the Gujarat High Court said that feeding chickens to big cats during illegal lion shows could “also be the cause for infection”. The court was hearing a petition related to the deaths of lions over the past two years. Amicus curiae Hemang Shah said that the High Court had directed the state government to take steps to prevent such deaths.