Lion cen­sus method out­dated: ex­perts

Deaths due to a virus were not re­ported, they say

The Hindu - - NEWS - Ja­cob Koshy

An out­dated method­ol­ogy and the true mor­tal­ity from a virus af­fect­ing In­dia’s lions dent the cred­i­bil­ity of the Gu­jarat gov­ern­ment’s claims on its lion pop­u­la­tion. On Wed­nes­day, Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi and Union En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Prakash Javadekar tweeted re­sults of the 2020 Asi­atic Lion Cen­sus that put the num­ber of lions at 674, a 28% rise from 2015.

A wildlife bi­ol­o­gist who closely works with the Union En­vi­ron­ment Min­istry on wildlife sur­veys said that the ca­nine dis­tem­per virus (CDV) that killed at least 36 lions in Gir, Gu­jarat in 2018 had not ebbed. This was in spite of the gov­ern­ment in­oc­u­lat­ing lions with an im­ported vac­cine. “There have been more deaths from the virus since Jan­uary but no data about these have been shared,” the bi­ol­o­gist said.

Yad­ven­dradev Jhala, se­nior sci­en­tist at the Wildlife In­sti­tute of In­dia (WII), an au­tonomous or­gan­i­sa­tion of the Union En­vi­ron­ment Min­istry, said the Gu­jarat gov­ern­ment uses a 100-yearold method to count lions that would not “stand the scru­tiny of con­tem­po­rary science”. This ap­proach, called the Di­rect Beat Ver­i­fi­ca­tion or Block Count method, in­volves of­fi­cials from the State wildlife depart­ment lay­ing stake at wa­ter­ing holes across the an­i­mals’ ter­ri­to­rial range.

Fewer per­son­nel

This year, from June 5-6, depart­ment of­fi­cials mon­i­tored the num­bers of the lions. In nor­mal years, along­side these forest of­fi­cials, there would be in­de­pen­dent ex­perts and ob­servers from non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions. This year, the process in­volved 1,400 per­son­nel. Nor­mally, about 2,000 per­sons would be in­volved and the mon­i­tor­ing would be done over two days. The re­duc­tion in num­ber of peo­ple in­volved was due to travel re­stric­tions im­posed for the pan­demic.

Dr. Jhala said that newer meth­ods such as cam­era trap­ping and iden­ti­fy­ing lions based on per­ma­nent marks on their body, and sta­tis­ti­cal es­ti­mates based on the an­i­mals’ preda­tory pat­terns and num­bers of their prey base — all of which were used to count tigers — were more sci­en­tif­i­cally pre­cise. In a re­search pa­per pub­lished in in Fe­bru­ary, he and col­leagues, based on a sur­vey in Gir, iden­ti­fied 67 in­di­vid­ual lions from 368 sightings. “Us­ing pho­to­graphs and other mark­ers, we can re­li­ably iden­tify in­di­vid­u­als but we have been never al­lowed to do a cen­sus. I have been try­ing for 15 years. With the cur­rent meth­ods and the fact that lions can range as much as 700 sq. km., you can both grossly un­der count or over count,” he said.

PloS One

An of­fi­cial from the Union En­vi­ron­ment Min­istry’s wildlife divi­sion said, “Cam­era traps are not yet suit­able for lions as they don’t have clearly dis­cernible per­ma­nent phys­i­cal fea­tures, un­like in tigers, which have unique stripes. There are lots of ideas but go­ing ahead, we will con­sider newer meth­ods that are prac­ti­cal. The CDV was an is­sue in 2018 but this year, we haven’t yet got any re­port of such deaths,” the of­fi­cial said.

H.S. Singh, a mem­ber of In­dia’s Na­tional Board for Wildlife and an ex­pert on Gir lions es­ti­mates 26 lions to have suc­cumbed to CDV this year. “The virus is en­demic in livestock and pe­ri­od­i­cally in­fects lions so only largescale vac­ci­na­tion of livestock can help. How­ever, I don’t think it sig­nif­i­cantly de­creases the pop­u­la­tion. That 60% of the lions are out­side the pro­tected area and in­creas­ing is a more se­ri­ous is­sue.”

VI­JAY SONEJI ■

Pride of place: Lions rest­ing in the Gir sanc­tu­ary

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