Roar for Tigers

The tiger faces a new threat

The tiger faces a new threat

Feb 7, 2014

Recently, traces of Canine Distemper Virus, fatal for tigers, were found in Indian reserves. The episode highlights the country’s preparedness to protect the endangered animal from disease.
Sometime in the middle of last month, an important government official revealed a frightening development: At least four of India’s precious tigers had died in Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh in 2013 from Canine Distemper Virus (CDV), a disease that mostly attacks stray or feral dogs.The revelation caused a stir in animal circles. Could this ring a death knell of sorts for the Royal Bengal tiger? Fortunately for the big cat, the scare has been mostly on paper. But for a country where habitat loss and poaching have wreaked havoc on the tiger population, the episode highlights a hitherto ignored aspect to the forefront: disease outbreaks. Is India well-prepared to safeguard its wildlife, especially big feline predators like the Royal Bengal tiger, the Asiatic lion and the Indian leopard from diseases? Rajesh Gopal, additional director-general, Project Tiger, and member-secretary, National Tiger Conservation Authority, who first made the revelations about CDV, assures that everything is being monitored. “Under Project Tiger, funding support has been provided to tiger reserves for immunisation since its inception. As far as CDV is concerned, we are monitoring the situation since June 2013, and we have alerted the tiger states through a number of advisories,” he says. “We have also advised the states on vaccination of domestic animals around tiger reserves on a regular basis, and the need to report instances of animals showing abnormal behaviour, to collect tissues of dead animals for testing, and so on.” Gopal’s words are reassuring. An outbreak can decimate cat populations. For instance, between 1991 and 1994, an outbreak of CDV in Tanzania’s world-famous Serengeti National Park killed almost 20 per cent of the 3,000-strong lion population there. Outbreaks of other diseases such as anthrax and rinderpest regularly take a toll on wild animals in African game reserves, despite competent veterinary systems installed there. However, the story is not as simple as that. The efficacy of steps like innoculation is debatable and prudent conservation has to take into account a lot of factors. Having carried out long-term research in the Western Ghats, Ullas Karanth, director for Science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), New York, says, “Disease is not a major driver of demographic decline in tigers or leopards. However, if an outbreak of CDV or other disease were to occur, tiger and leopard populations may respond in the same way that other wildlife species have responded in the past: dip down and rebound.” He then points out the impracticality of trying to contain outbreaks. “I do not see a cost-effective way of implementing any veterinary intervention to inoculate either tiger or prey populations, or, even domestic/feral animals, on the massive scale that is required. Vaccinating a few dozen wild animals or a few hundred dogs around a few tiger reserves does not create any sort of ‘barrier’ to keep CDV at bay. Such tokenism may make us all feel good, but will achieve little else other than waste resources and divert attention from priority threats to tigers and their habitat.” To this, Valmik Thapar, India’s ‘Tiger Man’ and author of the recently-released Tiger Fire counters, “Karanth is correct that the first priority is to have poacher-free and inviolate habitats. But that does not mean you can ignore disease. Both will have to go hand-in-hand.” So can’t India’s wilds be made safe for the tigers? “Making a place disease-free may be possible in small islands like New Zealand and the UK, but not in a country like India,” says N V K Ashraf, chief veterinarian, Wildlife Trust of India. The Royal Bengal may have avoided mass death this time, but the necessity of constant vigil has never been underlined as now.
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