The Indian government ordered the temporary closure of all tiger reserves to tourism, after a spate of Covid-19 outbreaks in zoos around the country.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority, an agency under the government’s environmental ministry, issued its order after the death of a Covid-positive lioness a few days prior.
“This latest instance of a zoo animal getting infected by Covid-19 once again indicates the high likelihood of disease transmission from affected human beings to captive wild animals,” said the order. “A similar transmission may also happen in tiger reserves.”
To prevent tigers and other wildlife from getting infected, all tiger reserves must close for tourism activities until further notice, the order said.
Tigers are an endangered species and fewer than 4,000 remain on Earth, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Several thousand tigers live in reservations in India, which has seen its population increase in recent years thanks to conservation efforts including expanded forest cover and penalties of jail time for killing the animals.
The latest outbreak took place at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park, also known as the Vandalur Zoo, in the southeastern city of Chennai, the Tamil Nadu state government said in a news release
A number of Asiatic lions, an endangered species numbering only in the hundreds, had shown symptoms of the disease in the zoo. Last week, a symptomatic 9-year-old lioness named Neela died. It remains unclear whether Covid-19 was the direct cause of the animal’s death.
Zoo officials and a team of vets immediately quarantined all the lions and started treating them with antibiotics. They have taken samples from the lions, tigers, and other large mammals to send for testing, hoping that genetic sequencing can reveal which strain of the virus infected the lions.
The outbreak follows eight positive cases in March among lions at a Hyderabad zoo. Similar outbreaks have also been reported in the lion enclosures of zoos and safaris in Jaipur and Etawah, said the news release. As a precautionary measure, Tamil Nadu closed its zoos to visitors on April 20.
Animals have been infected in other parts of the world, too. In New York, a number of tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for Covid-19 in April, 2020 after showing symptoms including coughing. They have since recovered.
The news sparked worry among zoologists — after word spread of the Bronx Zoo infections, India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority ordered all tiger reserves in the country to observe their tigers for symptoms, and to ensure all animal handlers were Covid-negative.