The Indian government has been forced to temporarily close zoos across the nation after a spate of Covid-19 outbreaks and animal deaths.
Authorities in India have been forced to temporarily close all tiger reserves to tourism after a spate of Covid-19 outbreaks in zoos around the country and animal deaths from the disease.
Earlier this week, the National Tiger Conservation Authority – an agency under the government’s environmental ministry – gave the order, following the death of a Covid-positive lioness a few days earlier.
Staff at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park noticed signs of loss of appetite, nasal discharge and occasional coughing among a pride of Asiatic lions last week – with nine testing positive, and one of them, nine-year-old Neela, dying.
“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,” the National Tiger Conservation Authority said.
“A similar transmission may also happen in tiger reserves.”
To prevent tigers and other wildlife from getting infected, reserves must close for tourism activities until further notice.
Given India’s current situation in regards to the virus, with the nation left reeling after a devastating second wave which began in March and peaked in mid-May, killing tens of thousands of people and sickening millions, City University of Hong Kong dean of veterinary medicine and life sciences, Nikolaus Osterrieder, said the decision to shutter zoos and the threat to animals wasn’t all that surprising.
“It’s probably not a coincidence that in India, where you have high numbers of cases, that transmission to animals is happening as a direct consequence,” he told CNN.
“The more cases in humans, the higher the likelihood that animals, including zoo animals, are getting infected.”
Felines like lions and tigers are particularly vulnerable to severe disease, he added, including domestic cats, which “can succumb to the disease, which can make them really sick”.
The zoo outbreaks “just highlight that humans can transmit pathogens to animals, not only the other way around”, he explained.
It’s not the first time animals have been infected by the virus – in New York last April, a number of lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo tested positive after showing symptoms, including coughing. They have since recovered.
According to America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there’s currently no evidence to suggest that animals play a significant role in spreading coronavirus to humans.
In an advisory on its website, it said that more studies are needed to understand if and how different animals could be affected by the disease, and that it could be spread from people to animals in certain situations, particularly during close contact.
“We know that Covid-19 can infect animals like cats,” associate professor at Bengaluru’s National Centre for Biological Science, Uma Ramakrishnan, told the Hindustan Times, citing the Bronx Zoo case, which may have been caused by “interactions with an infected keeper”.
“Infection rates in India are very high right now, and this makes the probability of spillover from humans to animals high. The best way to control this is to break the chain; test keepers and zoo staff regularly.”