India scrambles to save tigers from deadly virus

By Katy Daigle

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 13 2014 6:24 a.m. MST

India is home to more than half of the world's estimated 3,200 tigers. An ongoing tiger census should give an updated count in a year. Despite dozens of tiger reserves in place, their numbers have sunk from an estimated 5,000-7,000 in the 1990s, when their habitat was more than twice as large.

Illegal poaching remains a stubborn and serious danger, with tiger parts fetching high black market prices due to demand driven by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. Deforestation and urban growth, meanwhile, bring the cats ever-closer to human settlements — and into conflict with villagers who will hunt any wild animals near their communities or livestock.

That tigers may now face another threat from disease is alarming, said Thopsie Gopal, an Indian expert in animal emerging infectious diseases who was not involved in the test cases.

"This is a serious situation," said Thopsie Gopal, who has no relation to Rajesh Gopal. "Maybe tigers are eating infected dogs, or maybe it is spreading in the wild."

He suggested India could resume its policy of vaccinating cattle against rinderpest, another virus similar to canine distemper. Increasing antibodies against rinderpest in the environment could help boost defenses against canine distemper, he said. "It might be too late, but might be worth trying," he said.

Indian experts also want to search living tigers for natural antibodies that could be used in creating a vaccine. But there are obvious challenges in capturing the reclusive and dangerous nighttime predators for blood tests.

"It would take a lot of funding and a lot of manpower," Sharma said. "We'll see if the government agrees."

Follow Katy Daigle on Twitter at twitter.com/katydaigle

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