Located in the western state of Gujarat, the Gir Forest National Park happens to be the last refuge for the endangered Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo leo). This subspecies lived across a wide swathe of western and southern Asia, from the plateau of Anatolia in Turkey to the forests of the Narmada river in India. Genetic analysis has revealed that the Asiatic Lion is very closely related to the Barbary Lion, a subspecies found in North Africa. Though the Barbary Lion was morphologically distinct, its genetic makeup was near-identical to that of its Asiatic cousins. Earlier, the latter went under the scientific name of Panthera leo persica but taxonomists now classify both as Panthera leo leo.

Indiscriminate hunting by British officers and Indian princes wiped out entire populations in South Asia. The last population of Asiatic Lions survived, ironically, on the private hunting reserve of the Nawabs of Junagarh, a small principality near the southern tip of Gujarat’s Kathiawar Peninsula. Only a dozen of the iconic big cats remained. Sir Muhammad Mahabat Khanji III Rasul Khanji, the last Nawab of the kingdom, played a key role in their preservation. After the Partition of British India into India and Pakistan, the princely state was amalgamated with India.

The hunting reserve was turned into a sanctuary. Government efforts to conserve Asiatic Lions and manage human-animal conflict paid rich dividends. Within a period of seven decades, Lion numbers rebounded, to an astonishing figure of 523. Gir became the byword for success in wildlife conservation. However, it might have been too much of a good thing. One has to remember that these 523 big cats survive in and around a national park that covers 1,412 square kilometers. Most of it is dry deciduous forest – dominated by trees (Buttontree, Catechu, Teak, Wood Apple, Red Silk-Cotton, Indian Gooseberry) and scrub (Leafless Euphorbia, Sudan Gum, Dyers’ Oleander).

It goes without saying that the carrying capacity of such a reserve would be limited (both in terms of the natural vegetation available for the Lions’ prey base and the territory available for adult individuals to hunt and breed in). In fact, with the explosion in big cat numbers, Asiatic Lions have been spilling out of the reserve in search of prey and territory. Sightings of Lions way beyond the park boundaries, in villages, along beaches, and even harbors and islets, are not unusual. Some experts estimate that the pressure faced by the big cats is tremendous, and has forced as many 40% of the population to seek refuge outside the sanctuary.

As many as two hundreds of them might have died within a short period of time on account of intra-specific and man-lion conflict. What has made things worse is the attitude of successive Gujarati governments that have turned the Gir Forest and Asiatic Lions into exclusive symbols of state pride. Despite repeated requests by wildlife conservationists and orders from the Indian Supreme Court (in 2013), Gujarat’s chief ministers, bureaucrats and wildlife officials have refused to provide a few individuals to establish a second viable population outside Gir. A proposal to shift Lions to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary came to nought because of their obstinacy.

But this desire to monopolize an iconic species has come back to haunt Gujarat. Recently, as many as 23 Asiatic Lions died in quick succession. That translates to a loss of nearly 5% of the global Asiatic Lion population within a month. The state’s bureaucrats tried to fend off suspicions of a deadly epidemic being responsible for the deaths (a scenario that has been discussed as a plausible threat to long term Lion survival by Indian conservationists concerned by the fierce resistance to their relocation), blaming it on intra-specific competition. But the speculation did not disappear.

Now, everybody’s worst fears have come true. Studies of tissue samples collected from some of the dead specimens sent to the National Institute of Virology, Pune (in Maharashtra) tested positive for Canine Distemper Virus (CDV), a deadly pathogen that kills mammalian carnivores. The samples also tested positive for Babesiosis, an infection caused by Babesia, an Apicomplexan parasite (related to pathogens like Plasmodium, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora and Toxoplasma). What makes the results even more frightening is the fact that the Canine Distemper Virus wiped out as many as 1,000 lions in Tanzania’s Serengeti, a region famous all over the globe for its big game.

The deadly epidemic, traced back to dogs (that act as reservoirs for the virus), wiped out a third of the park’s 3,000-strong (approximate) Lion population, achieving an terrifying 30% mortality rate. One needs to remember that these 3,000 individuals ranged over an area of 14,750 square kilometers. That’s ten times the size of Gir. Also, unlike Gir Forest National Park, Serengeti National Park is contiguous with several nature reserves – Maasai Mara National Reserve (in Kenya), and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the Ikorongo Game Reserve and Grumeti Game Reserve (all three in Tanzania), providing a much larger area for the big cats to disperse over.

Gir, in contrast, is a tiny island of wilderness surrounded by sprawling villages and towns. The death of as many as 23 Lions has sent the Gujarat govt. into a tizzy. Desperate, last ditch attempts have been made to isolate the diseased lions, vaccinate them and contain the outbreak. But the presence of such a large number of big cats within such a small area means that all of Gir’s Asiatic Lions are sitting ducks for any natural calamity – forest fires and epidemics. With the detection of CDV, they are in real danger of total annihilation. Given below is a report – ‘Lion deaths in Gujarat spark talks of alternative home for big cats’ (in LiveMint, dated October 3, 2018), describing the totally avoidable fiasco:

The recent deaths of Asiatic lions in Gujarat’s Gir forest have once again sparked a debate of finding an alternative home for the rare big cats. In the last one month, 21 lions have died in the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park due to various reasons, including infighting and virus infection. Members of panthera leo persica, the lion sub-species now found only in Gujarat’s Gir forest and surrounding areas, are faced with the threat of a deadly disease, which has killed 10 of them between 20 September and 30 September.

According to reports received from the National Institute of Virology, Pune, the virus was found in four cases, whereas traces of Protozoans, spread by ticks found on the body of lions, were found in six samples sent to the Veterinary College in Junagadh, a statement by the state forest department said. When contacted, Minister of State for Forest and Environment Ganpath Vasava confirmed over the phone that the canine distemper virus (CDV) was responsible for four deaths. “The report for CDV in four (lions) has been tested positive. We are taking all precautionary measures for the safety of all lions.”

In 1994, an outbreak of canine distemper virus, which can spread from dogs in the wild, killed around 1,000 lions in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Gujarat needed to relocate some of its lions to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh to avoid the possibility of disease or some other disaster wiping out the entire population. The Gujarat government refused to translocate the lions to Kuno in Madhya Pradesh last year over concerns of its co-existence with the tiger and the difference in the climatic condition of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

“Canine distemper virus is extremely infective. In Serengeti it killed a thousand lions in three weeks’ time. Such epidemics are like natural catastrophes that come without any fore-warning. Translocation is good for lion conservation and one has to only follow the Supreme Court’s order to implement it,” according to Ravi Chellam, a conservation scientist. The rising number of deaths in such a short span of time has been a cause of worry for conservationists and wildlife experts. As a precautionary measure, all lions residing in the Samardi area were rescued and brought to the Jamwala Rescue centre, and actions were being taken to insulate them from the disease. 

“No virus or bacteria has been reported from 31 lions rescued from the Samardi forest area,” according to Dushyant Vasavda, Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) in Junagadh. “An alternate home must be found for the lions if there was a suitable habitat. Canine distemper was responsible for wiping out 1,000 out of 3,000 lions in Tanzania and one must do everything to avoid a similar situation,” said H S Singh, a member of the National Board for Wildlife Committee. He, however, said Kuno was not suitable for lions due to its high temperature.

Rajan Joshi, a wildlife conservationist said he had written to the Gujarat chief minister last month warning about the possibility of canine distemper for the cause of deaths of lions. “I strongly believe that a second home is necessary for the lions as their population has started spilling outside the protected areas. Also the government needs to give more support to the local community for better conservation of lions.” The Asiatic lion population spilled outside the Gir forest, as reflected in the Census released in 2015, according to which one in three lions resided outside the sanctuary area.

The 2015 lion census by the Gujarat government showed that the western state was home to 523 lions, a 27% increase compared with the 2010 Census. The rise in population has forced many lions to move out of the protected area where around 315 lions reside according to the 2015 Census. The lion population is today spread in around 22,000 sq km across five districts in Gujarat. The success story of Asiatic lions in Gir has become a model of conservation, with constant patrols against poachers. The protected area of Asiatic lions is spread over 1,452 sq. km and includes five regions, including the Gir National Park, the Gir sanctuary, Matiyana and Paniya.

According to the forest department statement, the population has reached around 600. Around five years ago, the state government proposed to the Centre to notify an area of 3,467 sq. km near Gir as an ecologically sensitive zone, barring any industrial development or mining activity in the area. According to Chief Conservator of Forest Vasada, the matter is currently in the court.

Also, a new conservation area in the Jesar-Hipavadli zone, situated around 70 km from Gir and spread across 109 sq. km, has been proposed as an ‘’alternative home’’ for the lions in Gujarat. However, the Centre was yet to clear the proposal, a senior government official said on the condition of anonymity. Barda Wildlife Sanctuary near Junagadh was also identified as an alternative home for lions but the plan was yet to be realised. The main reason was rapid urbanisation in the area, which saw a large influx of human population, according to the official mentioned above.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is a photograph of a male Asiatic Lion in Gujarat’s Gir Forest. It was uploaded by Amaan Syed.