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Dwindling lions of Gir

Dwindling   lions of Gir

The mysterious death of 23 Gir lions within a short of span of three weeks have come as a serious disappointment to wildlife lovers. Spread over 1,400 sq km, the Gir forest in Gujarat is home to 521 Asiatic lions as per the latest census in 2015. Reports of the dead lions being spotted by forest officials began coming in from early September and within three weeks as many as 23 lions were found dead, sparking off fears of a viral epidemic gripping the lions. Most of the deaths have been reported from a certain region in the forest and the tests conducted on the dead lions revealed that a deadly combination of Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) and protozoal infections was behind the death of at least 11 lions. Initially, forest department officials believed that the lions were dying because of the infighting among the lions. CDV is a dangerous virus found among wild animals. The same virus was responsible for the killing of about 1,000 lions in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania in 1994. Taking cognizance of the mysterious deaths of the lions, the Supreme Court has recently asked the government what it was planning to do to prevent the death of lions in the Gir forest. The forest officials have kept 36 lions under observation even as 300 shots of a vaccine are being procured from Alaska in the US to administer on the lions.

The Gir forest and the Asiatic lions found here are extremely popular among wildlife tourists as about 5 lakh tourists visit the wildlife sanctuary every year. Despite the ever-shrinking wildlife habitat, the Gir forest is considered one of the best-managed wildlife sanctuaries in the country and it is a matter of serious concern that so many of the lions died so suddenly without forest officials getting a hint that there could be a viral infection afflicting these canine. It is surprising that the ground staff entrusted with the task to keep a close watch on the animals did not have enough training and logistics to sense that there was something seriously wrong with the lions. As the outbreak of deadly viruses is common these days, it is about time India upgraded the infrastructure and facilities to support and sustain the diverse and rich wildlife that the country has.

The death of Gir lions should act as a reminder that the forests and the wildlife that India has needs to be protected and taken care of more vigilantly. For this, the government needs to focus on regular training of the ground staff who deal with the wildlife directly. They need to know in advance the kind of problem that the wild animals are going to face. Regular health screening of important wildlife species in the forest should be undertaken to detect life-threatening diseases among them.

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