Three years after a deadly virus hit endangered Asian lions in India in their last natural habitat, nature conservationists are looking for new homes to help free-floating prides.
Large cats, slightly smaller than their African cousins and with a skin fold along their belly, were once widely found in Southwest Asia.
Hunting and human trespasses saw the population plunge to just 20 in 1913, and lions are now found only in a wildlife sanctuary in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
After years of coordinated government efforts, the lion population in Gir National Park has grown to nearly 700, according to an official census last year.
But just three years ago, conservation success seemed to be in jeopardy when some lions began to die in a 1,400-square-kilometer (545-square-mile) part of the forest.
The highly infectious dog disease virus was discovered among dozens of royal animals, killing at least 11 of them.
“We selected all the lions from the area and isolated them,” Dushyant Vasavada, the park’s chief forest conservator, told AFP.
Authorities imported separate vaccines from overseas and each animal was given three doses each, followed by a boost.
Cattle and dogs living near the park were also inoculated as suspected carriers of the virus.
“We vaccinated the captive lions and successfully controlled the disease and no new outbreaks have been observed,” Vasavada said, adding that park rangers were closely monitoring their health.
‘A very exciting experience’
Lions are a source of pride for India, especially in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, where humans and animals coexist.
A cattle breeding tribe lives among the animals in the sanctuary and it is not uncommon to see a lion proudly crossing a highway in the region while drivers wait and watch.
The King of the Jungle is also a major tourist attraction, along with leopards, panthers and other large cats found in the sanctuary.
About 550,000 people visit the park each year, riding in open jeeps as they try to spot predators crawling among the yellow and yellow deciduous trees.
“It is a very thrilling experience to see lions up close in the wild,” said forest guide Dinesh Sadiya.
But the outbreak of the 2018 virus was a reminder that the steady growth of the animal population cannot be taken for granted.
Lions have low genetic diversity due to their small population size, making them more vulnerable to epidemics.
A 1993 outbreak of the canine virus in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park killed a third of its 3,000 lions.
Wildlife biologist Ravi Chellam said the blast underscored the need to move some pride to other nearby places.
“Translocation is a risk mitigation strategy similar to health or life insurance,” he told AFP.
“If something happens to the population in Gir, there will always be an additional free-range population of wild lions available.”
Chellam said the shrine was also too small for its ever-growing lion population.
“There are far more lions than Gir can hold … these animals are not static, they are constantly moving out and interacting with pets and humans,” he added.
Attempts to move some lions to other states have plunged into legal squabbles with the state government, which wants to keep animals in Gujarat.
Authorities have instead proposed finding new homes for some lions in other parts of the state.
Meanwhile, guards watch over stray lions, who sometimes roam the countryside and kill cattle with the help of dozens of imported radio collars.
“If a lion has not moved for 48 hours, we can alert our staff,” said Mohan Ram, the park’s conservative deputy.
Tracking collars are placed around a lion’s neck, helping guards monitor their health and movements, reduce road and rail accidents, and reduce human-wildlife conflict.
The population of endangered lions in India is growing to 600
citation: Proud lions endangered by India invade disease to roam free (2021, February 23) Retrieved February 23, 2021 from https://phys.org/news/2021-02-india-endangered-lion-prides-conquer.html
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