Deadly virus threatens India’s tiger population

India is scrambling to protect its beleaguered tiger population after several big cats tested positive for a virus common among dogs but deadly to other carnivores, experts said.

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 revelation is bad news for wild tigers – already endangered by rampant poaching and shrinking habitat as India undergoes breakneck development to accommodate the staggering growth of its 1.2 billion people. That same economic development and population growth means more people – and more dogs – are coming even closer to wildlife.

India will now test every tiger carcass it finds for the virus, Gopal said, while authorities also consider a massive campaign to vaccinate dogs against canine distemper.

“We cannot vaccinate every dog, of course. But even 50 percent of dogs in the zones around sanctuaries would help,” Gopal said. He did not give details of the plans being considered. There is no vaccine for big cats.

The cases being found across such a huge swath of India, however, suggests the disease could already be running in the wild, experts said, though they agree much more research is needed.

“These are very disturbing finds,” said Dr. A.K. Sharma, head scientist at the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, which performed the canine distemper lab tests. “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.”

Since two cubs tested positive in a zoo in the Bihar state capital of Patna a year ago, Sharma and his colleagues have found at least four more cases – a red panda in the northeast state of Manipur, a wild tiger in West Bengal, a zoo lion in Darjeeling and last month a wild tiger in the Dudhwa Tiger reserve in Uttar Pradesh.[Full article]