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How COVID Death of a Chennai Lioness Exposes Animal Vulnerability

A total of 11 lions of the popular Vandalur zoo in Tamil Nadu’s Chennai have tested positive for COVID-19.

Updated
COVID-19
5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>With eleven of its lions testing positive for coronavirus, Tamil Nadu’s Arignar Anna Zoological Park has turned into a COVID animal cluster.</p></div>
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On 3 June, Arignar Anna Zoological Park, witnessed India’s first wild animal death due to coronavirus. Neela, a nine-year-old Asiatic lioness of the zoo succumbed to the virus. So far, ten other lions of the zoo which is affiliated to Central Zoo Authority, have tested positive for COVID.

Spread across 602 hectares, the well-known zoo, that has over 2,300 inmates, including mammals, birds and reptiles belonging to 180 odd species, has turned into an animal COVID cluster.

In India, as there were only two other instances of animals getting infected by the virus – at zoos in Hyderabad and Jaipur – not much scientific evidence is available to help out, veterinarians say.

How Did the Animals Get Infected?

Zoo officials say that it is difficult to pin point how the animals got COVID-19.

“Assuming they got infected from humans, it could have happened either through the animal keepers, who maintain the cage or the feed that is provided to the animals. Having said that, we have been taking all necessary Covid protocols in both these aspects.”
A zoo official told The Quint, on the condition of anonymity.

He says that all animal keepers are let inside only after compulsory temperature check. Those who come in contact with the animals are provided personal protective equipment (PPE) kits and masks. They are also vaccinated and Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) tested, frequently, he said. Besides, the official also said that the zoo area is sanitised regularly.

When it comes to feed, the official said it is procured from an authorised slaughter house in Perambalur. “Once the food arrives, we also perform ultra violet (UV) treatment to remove any surface contamination.”

He added that the case of animal-to-animal transmission also cannot be ruled out, at this point.

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A Healthy Lion Dies

The zoo witnessed the first signs of a coronavirus outbreak on 26 May, when a group of five lions housed in its safari park area showed the virus symptoms – anorexia (loss of appetite) and occasional coughing. Soon, the in-house veterinary team of the zoo swung into action and began investigating the animals as per protocol.

A team of experts from Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (TANUVAS) were also roped in to join the zoo’s veterinarians to investigate the cause of infection and decide on further course of treatment.

Blood samples of all the zoo’s lions were sent to TANUVAS. Nasal, rectal, and faecal samples of the animals were also sent to National Institute of High Security Diseases (NIHSAD), Bhopal, which is one of the four designated institutes authorised to take up SARS CoV-2 testing in captive animals.

In order to rule out false positives, samples of the animals were also sent to Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) and Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad on 4 June.

Officials said that Lioness Neela which was lodged in animal house two, had not shown symptoms till 1 June.

“Late evening on 1 June, lioness Neela developed a cough. The next morning it started having nasal congestion. It had neither comorbid conditions nor any other medical issues. So, we are shocked as to how such a young and healthy lion succumbed to the virus.”
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Though, zoos in Hyderabad and Jaipur have also reported instances of lions testing positive for the virus, the animals recovered subsequently. “But ours is the only zoo that has mysteriously lost a healthy lion. Hence, we are worried for the safety of other lions that are affected, especially for a couple of aged female lions, that are slow in responding to the treatment, the official said.

Officials said that they found it very difficult to collect nasal swab samples from other lions.

“We did not want to sedate the animals as it would suppress their immunity.” That’s when the zoo authorities decided to use a ‘squeeze cage’ to pick up samples. “A squeeze cage becomes smaller and smaller in size when hydraulics is applied. And at one point the animal kept in the cage becomes physically restrained. That is when our doctors go ahead and pick the samples,” the official explained.

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Treatment Troubles

Zoo officials said that they are scrupulously following all the COVID precautionary measures prescribed by the Central Zoo Authority and the Central and state governments.

All the lions that tested positive for coronavirus are quarantined. The in-house veterinary team and experts from TANUVAS are closely monitoring and providing them prescribed treatment regimen, officials said.

They said that a separate set of animal keepers are engaged for each group of lions. PPE kits have been made mandatory for all animal keepers, veterinary doctors, and field staff visiting the lions.

“Besides, we have also asked the doctors to boost the immunity of the affected animals by providing them appropriate multivitamins.”

The samples of all lions, including that of Neela have been sent to Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad for genome sequencing. CCMB is an approved animal SARS-CoV-2 sequencing centre for testing the strain of the virus that infected the lions.

The analysis by CCMB and IVRI, officials said, will throw better insights on how the animals got infected. It will also help them in providing appropriate treatment, they said.

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Other Animals Also Vulnerable?

A wildlife veterinarian pointed out that the recent incidents of lions testing coronavirus positive have indicated that animals coming under the family of felids, mustelids, viverrids and primates are susceptible to the virus.

Officials at zoo said that appropriate precautionary measures are provided for these animals, in consultation with the expert team of TANUVAS, veterinarians from Hyderabad’s Nehru Zoological Park, and Bronx Zoo, New York, that had previously reported cases of animals testing virus-positive.

When asked if there is a possibility of infected animals passing the virus to humans, the wildlife veterinarian said, “No such case has been reported so far. And there is no scientific evidence to prove that it will happen in the future.”

The veterinarian says there is no scientific evidence that proves that the virus could spread to other zoo animals.

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Samples of Elephants Sent for Testing

Following the Vandalur Zoo reporting virus cases in its animals, Tamil Nadu’s Forest Department is on high alert to safeguard the animals housed at the state’s animal reserves.

The department’s officials on Tuesday, 8 June, collected samples of 56 captive elephants from two camps in Coimbatore and Nilgiris. The collected samples were sent for COVID-19 testing to IVRI.

Officials from the department said that samples were lifted from 28 elephants each from Anamalai Tiger Reserve (ATR), Coimbatore and Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) in Nilgiris.

“Although there have been no instances of elephants testing positive for the virus, we carried out the sample collection as a precautionary measure. None of the elephants showed any virus symptoms.”
E Prashanth, Assistant Conservator of Forests, Anamalai Tiger Reserve

He said that both rectal and nasal samples of the elephants were collected and sent for RT-PCR test at IVRI. He added that is the institute will test the samples for any other infectious diseases as well.

The officer also said that they are carefully monitoring tigers at the reserve to see if they are exhibiting any COVID symptoms.

“As per instruction from higher authorities, we have closed the reserve for outsiders. Besides, the mahouts and ‘Kaavadis’, a section of people from the nearby tribal village who take care of the elephants are also vaccinated.”
E Prashanth, Assistant Conservator of Forests, Anamalai Tiger Reserve

As the ‘Kaavadis’ reside in the settlements surrounding the tiger reserve, the officer said that their families have also been vaccinated to prevent any virus spread to the animals.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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