Differently endangered: Why the lions are most vulnerable to Covid – UP Front News


Over the past month, reports have trickled in of lions testing Covid-positive—as many as eight Asiatic lions in Hyderabad zoo (April 29) and two at the Etawah Safari Park in Uttar Pradesh (May 6). According to officials, tests are on at other zoos and the number of cases of Covid among wildlife may rise.

While a number of animals had tested positive for the virus in 2020 as well—a tigress at the Bronx zoo in the US and domestic cats across the world—these are the first reported incidents in India of wild animals testing positive. All the early cases of infections among zoo-bred animals involve lions. But why is the king of the jungle proving to be particularly vulnerable to the virus? “While nothing can be said conclusively, it is known that cats are at greater risk than other animals. Even among cats, the zoo-bred lions are genetically weaker and, therefore, at greater risk,” says J.S. Chauhan, additional principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), Madhya Pradesh.

The big cats seem to have contracted the virus from humans, mainly caretakers at the Hyderabad zoo, many of whom tested positive as well. While Covid is clearly a threat to both domestic animals and wildlife, an important issue to consider now is: can the disease be transmitted to human beings from animals?

Dr Y.S. Malik, dean, College of Animal Biotechnology, Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Ludhiana, believes animal to human transmission of Covid is possible. “In a study conducted at 16 mink farms in the Netherlands, where a large number of animals and their caretakers were infected by Covid-19, it was found that the disease had been introduced in animals by humans. However, during the course of the study, widely published since, it was also found that transmission from animals to humans is possible,” says Dr Malik, who was, coincidentally, in Wuhan, China, as a visiting scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in 2019, shortly before the coronavirus outbreak.

Cats, dogs and ferrets are among species more susceptible to the virus, while poultry and pigs are believed to be safe from it. “There is no reason to panic but we do need more surveillance. We need to move to a ‘one health’ concept, where the boundaries between medical science and veterinary science need to be demolished,” says Dr Malik, making a case for greater coordination between the fields in coming days. “The respiratory variant of the canine coronavirus is the same genus as the one troubling the world. It is also known that the virus mutates, which is why more work is needed to predict its manifestations in days to come.”

Meanwhile, on April 30, the ministry of environment, forest and climate change issued an advisory to all chief wildlife wardens of states, asking them to maintain heightened vigilance in this regard. It asked states to shut down all national parks to tourists, ensure Covid-appropriate behaviour among staff deployed in protected areas and set up systems for treatment of animals.

Wildlife managers feel animals living in a natural environment in forests are at far lower risk than those in zoos, since the latter come in contact with humans much oftener. “Staff members at all zoos are being tested and animals are being closely monitored,” says Chauhan.

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