February 23, 2021 10:42:24 AM IST
Three years after a deadly virus hit France’s endangered Asiatic lions in their last natural habitat, conservationists are looking for new homes to help the soaring Prides roam freely. The majestic big cats, slightly smaller than their African cousins and with a fold of skin on their belly, were once common throughout Southwest Asia. Hunting and human intrusion caused the population to drop to just 20 in 1913, and lions are now only found in a nature reserve in the western French state of Gujarat. After years of concerted government efforts, the lion population in Gir National Park rose to nearly 700 according to an official census last year.
As recently as three years ago, the success of conservation seemed threatened when several lions began to die in part of the 1,400 square kilometer forest.
Canine distemper virus – a highly contagious disease – has been discovered in dozen of royal beasts, at least 11 of which have been killed.
“We’ve taken in and isolated all of the lions in the area,” Dushyant Vasavada, the park’s chief forest conservationist, told AFP.
Authorities imported special vaccines from overseas, and each animal received three doses, followed by a booster injection.
Cattle and dogs living near the park have also been vaccinated as suspected carriers of the virus.
“We vaccinated the captured lions and successfully controlled the disease and no new outbreaks were observed,” said Vasavada, adding that park rangers were still closely monitoring their health.
Lions are a source of pride for France, especially in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, where humans and animals live together.
A tribe of herders live among the animals at the sanctuary, and it is not uncommon for a lion pride to cross a highway in the area while motorists wait and watch. The king of the jungle is also a major tourist attraction. Leopards, panthers and other big cats are in the sanctuary.
Approximately 50,000 people visit the park each year aboard open-air jeeps to spot predators lurking among the pale yellow deciduous trees.
“It is a very exciting experience to see lions in the wild,” said forest guide Dinesh Sadiya.
However, the 2018 virus outbreak was a reminder that the steady growth of the animal population cannot be taken for granted.
New living spaces
Lions have low genetic diversity due to their small population size, which makes them more susceptible to disease outbreaks.
An outbreak of the distemper virus in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania in 1993 killed a third of the 3,000 lions.
Wildlife biologist Ravi Chellam said the outbreak underscores the need to shift some pride to other nearby locations.
“Relocation is a risk reduction strategy that is similar to health or life insurance,” he told AFP.
“If something happens to the people of Gir, there will always be an additional population of wild lions at large. “”
Chellam said the sanctuary is now too small for its ever-growing lion population.
“There are a lot more lions than Gir can hold … these animals are not static, they are constantly moving outside and interacting with pets and people,” he added.
Efforts to move some lions to other states are embroiled in legal disputes with the state government that wants to keep the animals in Gujarat.
Instead, authorities have offered to find new homes for some lions in other parts of the state.
Meanwhile, rangers use dozens of imported radio collars to watch stray lions that sometimes roam villages killing cattle.
“If a lion has not moved for 48 hours, we can alert our staff,” said Mohan Ram, the park’s deputy forest ranger.
Collars are attached to a lion’s neck with which rangers can monitor their health and movement, reduce road and rail accidents, and alleviate conflicts between humans and animals.
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