Virus, outdated census method mar Gujarat’s lion numbers

Efficacy of vaccine for CDV not known, data unavailable

June 11, 2020 10:11 pm | Updated 10:11 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Lions resting in the Gir sanctuary

Lions resting in the Gir sanctuary

An outdated methodology and the true mortality from a virus affecting India’s lions dent the credibility of the Gujarat government’s claims on its lion population. In a press statement on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar tweeted results of the 2020 Asiatic Lion Census that put the number of lions at 674, a 28% rise from 2015 and which is a similar rise from 2010.

Also read: Gujarat’s pride grows as it now hosts 674 Gir lions

A wildlife biologist who closely works with the Union Environment Ministry on wildlife surveys said that the canine distemper virus (CDV) that killed at least 36 lions in Gir, Gujarat in 2018 had not ebbed. This was in spite of the government inoculating lions with an imported vaccine, details of whose efficacy were never publicised. “There have been several more deaths from the virus since January but no data about these have been shared,” the biologist told The Hindu .

100-year-old method

Yadvendradev Jhala, senior scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), an autonomous organisation of the Union Environment Ministry, who led India’s quadrennial tiger survey, said the Gujarat government uses a 100-year-old method to count lions that would not “stand the scrutiny of contemporary science”. This approach, called the Direct Beat Verification or Block Count method, involves officials from the State wildlife department laying stake at watering holes, where lions slake their thirst, across the animals’ territorial range. This year, from June 5-6, department officials monitored the numbers of the lions. In normal years, alongside these forest officials, there would be independent experts and observers from non-governmental organisations. This year, the process involved 1,400 personnel according to a press release from the Chief Wildlife Warden, Gujarat. Normally, about 2,000 persons would be involved and the monitoring would be done over two days. The reduction in number of people involved was due to travel restrictions imposed for the pandemic.

Under or over count

Dr. Jhala said that newer methods such as camera trapping and identifying lions based on permanent marks on their body, and statistical estimates based on the animals’ predatory patterns and numbers of their prey base — all of which were used to count tigers — were more scientifically precise. In a research paper published in the peer-reviewed open access journal PloSOne in February, he and colleagues, based on a survey in Gir, identified 67 individual lions from 368 sightings. “Using photographs and other markers, we can reliably identify individuals but we have been never allowed to do a census. I have been trying for 15 years. With the current methods and the fact that lions can range as much as 700 sq. km., you can both grossly under count or over count,” he told The Hindu .

An official from the Union Environment Ministry’s wildlife division said wildlife was exclusively in the domain of the States. Organisations such the WII aided the National Tiger Conservation Authority in analysing tiger numbers, and in ensuring actual sightings and raw data were collected from the States. “With the lion, it’s entirely in one State and the Gujarat government follows a prescribed protocol. The same applies to, say, rhinos, elephants. Camera traps are not yet suitable for lions as they don’t have clearly discernible permanent physical features, unlike in tigers, which have unique stripes. There are lots of ideas but going ahead, we will consider newer methods that are practical. The CDV was an issue in 2018 but this year, we haven’t yet got any report of such deaths,” the official said.

‘Outside protected area’

H.S. Singh, a member of India’s National Board for Wildlife and an expert on Gir lions estimates 26 lions to have succumbed to CDV this year. “The virus is endemic in livestock and periodically infects lions so only large-scale vaccination of livestock can help. However, I don’t think it significantly decreases the population. That 60% of the lions are outside the protected area and increasing is a more serious issue.”

A forest official familiar with Gujarat’s lions said that the lion count was likely to be an underestimate, adding, “There are close to 700 lions outside the protected area, say reports. Higher numbers could mean Gujarat may have to send some lions to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh.”

Beyond wildlife, lion translocation is also a political issue. Over the years, Gujarat has bitterly contested sending lions to the alternate sanctuary of Kuno-Palpur in Madhya Pradesh.

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