Ringing alarm bells, the state forest department on Monday confirmed that seven Asiatic lions had died in the last five days of September, taking the number of deaths of the carnivores to 21 in a single month.
Officers said laboratories were conducting tests to ascertain the nature of viral infection detected among four dead lions and that 31 lions from Semardi area in Gir (east) forest division had been rescued and kept under observation as a precautionary measure.
Post-mortems conducted on the lions who died earlier last month have shown respiratory and hepatic failure to be one of the causes of their death apart from infighting and injuries caused due to it, a release from the forest department said Monday.
An official release, chief conservator of forests (CCF) of Junagadh wildlife circle, Dushyant Vasavada said that after deaths of 11 lions between September 12 and September 19, 10 more lions died between September 20 and September 30. All the 21 deaths within 19 days were reported from Sarasiya Vidi area of Dalkhaniya range in Gir (east) forest division in Amreli district.
“These 10 lions were among the group which had been rescued from Sarasiya Vidi after the initial deaths came to light from that area. They died while being given medical treatment at Jasadhar Rescue Centre,” Vasavada told The Indian Express.
The CCF added six more lions rescued from Sarasiya Vidi were under observation at the Jasadhar Rescue Centre in Gir (east) division. “Blood samples of injured and rescued lions and samples of tissues of dead lions have been sent to National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune. Reports received from the NIV have confirmed viral infection among four lions. But there are doubts about the identity of the virus and laboratories are further working on it. On the other hand, veterinary college, Junagadh has detected presence of protozoa caused by ticks in samples of six other lions. These infections have come to light from Sarasiya area only,” the CCF further said.
Meanwhile, forest officers said that 31 lions from Semardi forest area adjoining the Sarasiya Vidi had been rescued and shifted to Jamwala Rescue Centre for keeping them under observation. “This is just a precautionary measure. They have been isolated and put under observation and to insulate them from [the] disease. We concede that 21 deaths have been recorded. But all of them have come from the small area of Sarasiya Vidi. Just to ensure that the infection, if there is any, is contained in that area, we have rescued lions from surrounding areas and put them under observation. As of now, they are all healthy,” Vasavada added.
Principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF) and head of forest force of Gujarat, Gyanendra Sinha told The Indian Express that they were trying to ascertain the viral infection and to contain its adverse impact, help of experts from outside Gujarat is being solicited. “We have sent samples to NIV, IVRI (Indian Veterinary Research Institute), Bareilly, Forensic Science Laboratory, Junagadh etc and are trying to ascertain the exact cause. Earlier, dead bodies of seven lions were found and four had been rescued. The primary post-mortem reports of them had said that it was due to injuries and infection caused due to injuries in five or seven cases. But we were also worried that why so many deaths in one area only. So we sent sample to different place for more verification. So, we have called experts from outside. We have called experts from IVRI, Bareilly, Delhi Zoo and also from Itawah Lion safari park in Uttar Pradesh,” said Sinha.
The Junagadh CCF said that the experts had already reached Gir forest and were on the field to study the phenomenon. “They are in the field. They are checking lions and reviewing reports and records of blood samples, kidney and liver infections etc and will give their opinion. We are taking all the precautionary and preventive measures. As a precautionary measure, the state government is also importing some vaccines from America,” Vasavada said.
He added that primary reports had suggested that the 11 lions which died between September 12 to September 19 had died due during fighting among lions to gain control of a territory, injuries sustained during such fights as well as hipetic and respiratory failures etc.
After the initial 11 deaths, the forest department had formed 140 teams comprising 550 foresters, guards and lion trackers to screen each and every lion ranging around 3000 square kilometre of area, including Gir forest. The scanning exercise which had begun on September 23 was over, the CCF said. “The teams spotted around 600 lions. Out of them, only nine were found to be sick. Four of them had been given treatment on the spot while five were shifted to rescue centres for medical treatment. From no other part of the entire lion landscape has any trouble been reported,” added Vasavada.
On September 26, the laboratory of the veterinary college of Junagadh Agricultural University in Junagadh had reported that tissue samples of two lion cubs which had died between September 12 and September 19 had returned negative for the dreaded canine distemper virus.
Bhusan Pandya, a conservationist who has recorded lions and other flora and fauna of Gir and who is also a member of state wildlife board said so many deaths from a small area suggests something amiss. “In my journey of conservation, I have not heard of so many deaths from one particular area. While we will have to wait for forensic reports to know the exact cause of the trouble, so many deaths from a single pocket suggests that there is something serious,” said Pandya.
Gir forest and other protected areas spread across Junagadh, Gir Somnath, Amreli and Bhavnagar districts in Saurasthra region of Gujarat is the only natural home of Asiatic lions (Panthera Leo Persica). The sub-population of Asiatic lions in Gujarat is the only wild population of lion species in the world besides Africa. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global authority on the status of the natural world has classified Asiatic lions as an endangered species. A census in 2015 had pegged the population of Asiatic lions at 523.