India Tiger Virus Joins Poaching, Encroachment as Big Cat Threat

Tuesday, 14 Jan 2014 10:07 AM

By Michael Mullins

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A tiger virus in India is threatening the nation's tiger population after a series of deaths connected with canine distemper have been reported among big cats throughout the country.

Common among dogs, where it can be treated with medication, distemper is fatal for tigers, lions, leopards and other similar predators.

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India, which is home to half the world's estimated 3,200 tigers, has seen an rise of the viral disease among its big cat population, while simultaneously the nation's tiger population has seen its numbers shrink in recent decades due to poaching and increased human encroachment on their habitats considering India is home to more than 1.2 billion people.

In the last year, canine distemper virus has killed at least four tigers and several other animals across northern and eastern India, according to Rajesh Gopal of the government's National Tiger Conservation Authority, the Associated Press reported.

That figure, however, is believed to be much higher, considering many wild animals retreat deep into the jungle before they die and their bodies are rarely found.

In the last documented case in which a tiger succumbed to distemper, "forest guards said they saw the animal in a confused state before it died," Dr. A.K. Sharma, head scientist at the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, told the AP.

"These are very disturbing finds," Sharma added. "The cases were quite distant from each other, and the latest was an area where there are no dogs. So it appears the virus is spreading."

Due to fears that the virus represents a potentially insurmountable threat to India's tiger population, the nation's scientists are reportedly scrambling to find a practical solution to prevent its big cats from contracting distemper.

"We cannot vaccinate every dog, of course. But even 50 percent of dogs in the zones around sanctuaries would help," Gopal said.

The proposal of large scale vaccination of the nation's wild dog populations has been met with resistance from some who argue such a project would not be feasible.

"Thinking we can control this is totally unrealistic. We have to live with it now, and assess whether it's really serious yet," Ullas Karanth, the Bangalore-based Asian science director of Wildlife Conservation Society, told the AP. "What South Africa has done, quarantining huge areas and creating disease-free spaces in the wild, is not feasible here."

Another option being floated is capturing living tigers to find natural antibodies that could be used in creating a vaccine.

Indian officials first became aware of the distemper threat when two cubs tested positive in a zoo in the Bihar state capital of Patna a year ago.

Since the initial two cases, at least four more cases have been recorded by Sharma and his colleagues, two of which involved tigers, one a zoo lion and the last a red panda in the wild.

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