The National Tiger Conservation Authority, an agency subordinate to the Ministry of the Environment, issued its order a few days earlier on Monday after the death of a Covid-positive lioness.
“This latest case of a Covid-19 infection of a zoo animal again shows the high probability of the disease being transmitted from affected people to wild animals held in captivity,” said the order. “A similar transmission can also occur in tiger reserves.”
In order to prevent the infection of tigers and other wild animals, all tiger reserves must be closed to tourist activities until further notice, according to the order.
The most recent outbreak occurred at Arignar Anna Zoological Park, also known as Vandalur Zoo, in the southeastern city of Chennai, the Tamil Nadu state government said in a press release.
Several Asiatic lions, an endangered species only counting in the hundreds, had shown symptoms of the disease at the zoo. A symptomatic 9-year-old lioness named Neela died on Thursday. It remains unclear whether Covid-19 was the direct cause of the animal’s death.
Zoo officials and a team of veterinarians immediately quarantined all lions and began treating them with antibiotics. They have taken samples from lions, tigers, and other large mammals for testing in the hopes that genetic sequencing can reveal which strain of virus infected the lions.
Tamil Nadu Prime Minister MK Stalin visited the zoo on Sunday to discuss the situation with a number of other ministers and wildlife authorities. Stalin ordered officials to ensure that all zoo workers and zookeepers were vaccinated and “provide the best treatment to infected lions,” the statement said.
The outbreak follows eight positive cases in March in lions at a Hyderabad zoo. Similar outbreaks have also been reported in the lion cages of zoos and safaris in Jaipur and Etawah, the press release said. As a precautionary measure, Tamil Nadu closed its zoos to visitors on April 20th.
The news sparked concern among zoologists – after the Bronx Zoo infections spread, India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority ordered all tiger reserves in the country to monitor their tigers for symptoms and to ensure that all animal handlers were Covid negative.
“It is probably no accident that in India, where there are many cases, there is transmission to animals as a direct result,” he said. “The more cases in humans, the higher the probability that animals, including zoo animals, will be infected.”
Cats like lions and tigers are particularly susceptible to serious illnesses, he added. While animals like minks and ferrets can be more susceptible to infection, they generally do not develop severe clinical symptoms – while the family of cats that house cats “may succumb to the disease that can really make them sick”.
There are only 523 known individuals left, according to WWF – and they face widespread threats from poaching, habitat fragmentation, and human activities like wildlife tourism.
The zoo outbreaks “only show that humans can transmit pathogens to animals and not just the other way around,” said Osterrieder, referring to diseases brought in by humans that are now threatening mountain gorilla species. “We always have to be aware of that.”