At least 21 endangered Asian lions have died in the past 18 days in a national park in western India, home to the South Asian country’s entire population of around 500 big cats.
Ten Asiatic lions died in the last two weeks in the forest of Gir in Gujarat state, authorities confirmed on Tuesday, taking the toll to 21 in the last 18 days.
Infighting and infections were the main causes for the deaths, park conservator Dushyant Vasavada told news agency, DPA, on Tuesday.
“Of the eight deaths in the past week or so, four lions had died of viral infection, while others died due to protozoa infection, that is spread by ticks,” Vasavada said.
Vasavada rejected local media reports that said canine distemper virus (CDV) – a lethal virus that spreads from dogs in the wild – was confirmed in the deaths of the lions.
The virus had wiped out nearly 1,000 lions from Tanzania’s Serengeti Reserve in 1994.
“Nothing is confirmed yet, the tests are still on. We hope it is not CDV. We are taking all preventive measures importing multiple vaccines,” he said, adding the survey found that the deaths were localized to one small pocket of the park.
Five lions were still under treatment while 31 more were moved to another animal care centre and kept under isolation, authorities said.
India media reported that 64 teams were formed in Gir forest last week to screen and move sick lions to rescue centres. A federal team of experts was also sent to the national park.
The forest department said an estimated 100 lions die annually, with most deaths happening during the three months of the monsoon season in the region.
The Gir sanctuary was established to protect Asiatic lions from extinction and has seen a steady rise in its population, from an all-time low of 20 in 1913 to 523 during a 2015 census.
Wildlife experts have warned that an increasing lion population at Gir could lead to a rapid spread of infections, increased fighting over territory among the animals and a rise in human-animal conflicts.
In response, India’s Supreme Court advised that some of the animals be relocated to a park in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.
“There is a coordination committee and various aspects of this translocation are being studied,” said GK Sinha, principal chief conservator of forests in Gujarat state, last month.