The Lion Kingdom: New series documents fight against canine distemper outbreak in Gujarat's Gir forest

The Lion Kingdom director Upma Bhatnagar on combating CDV affecting lions in Gujarat's Gir, the changing meaning of wildlife, and the human-animal conflict.

Aarushi Agrawal January 27, 2020 12:00:17 IST
The Lion Kingdom: New series documents fight against canine distemper outbreak in Gujarat's Gir forest
  • In 2018, the canine distemper virus (CDV) killed 23 Asiatic Lions in Gir National Park, causing concern about the species.

  • A new docuseries, The Lion Kingdom, documents the efforts of the forest staff to contain and combat the spread of the virus.

  • As lion conservation successfully grows, more land is needed for them, leading to the human-animal conflict.

India loves its wildlife. And as more success stories of animal conservation surface, there’s an increased sense of pride in having those animals on our land – and a greater conflict with those animals for that land. In the face of irresponsible – instead of sustainable – development, the human-animal conflict, at the heart of which is the issue of land, seems inevitable. “But in a way Gir is slightly different because the people of the region have always lived with the lion, so there’s a historic coexistence,” says Upma Bhatnagar, director of the docuseries The Lion Kingdom, which documents the outbreak in late 2018 of the canine distemper virus (CDV), threatening the Gir National Park’s Asiatic Lion population.

The Lion Kingdom New series documents fight against canine distemper outbreak in Gujarats Gir forest

Upma Bhatnagar. All photos courtesy Animal Planet.

“People love their lions. Gujarat is very proud of the fact that they are the only state, and the only location outside of Africa, where lions exist,” she says. Having earlier seen the CDV outbreak in Africa’s Serengeti claim around a thousand lives, finding the virus in Gir’s lions caused nationwide concern for its small lion population of around 500. “In Africa they have numbers and they could still survive. But India, 500 is not a huge number in the global scenario. The fear was much bigger. What if the entire species was wiped out?” Being an airborne disease with no cure, as the CDV – traditionally limited to dogs – mutated so that it was suddenly a threat to big cats; it killed 23 of Gir’s lions. The virus itself is endemic to India, rampant among dogs. And while there aren’t any dogs within the park, other wild animals like mongooses and jackals are also carriers, acting as a bridge for the virus to reach lions. “There was one pride that was totally wiped out,” says Bhatnagar. “Fortunately, the outbreak was in a smaller area, the eastern area.” Surrounding prides were quickly isolated and removed from the area, containing the virus before it spread to parts with a higher concentration of lions.

The Lion Kingdom New series documents fight against canine distemper outbreak in Gujarats Gir forest

Adding to the stress of the virus was the unprecedented monsoon in the region hindering visibility and movement, for both the forest staff and the filmmakers. “People are out there in gushing waters. They could be swept off. Rescuers and we, ourselves, were stranded in so many locations,” explains Bhatnagar about the challenges the staff faces when working in these conditions. This is the story Bhatnagar wanted to tell. “The fight of the forest staff to combat it [CDV] and really triumph against it, how they worked day and night.” Because of the monsoon, it was also one of the toughest filming conditions the crew has ever encountered. “How do you get your equipment out without damaging it?” This however, in Bhatnagar’s view, is also what makes the series exciting for a viewer, providing thrill and allowing for a greater appreciation of the lushness of the landscape.

The Lion Kingdom New series documents fight against canine distemper outbreak in Gujarats Gir forest

And while the series also focuses on stories of other wildlife and their struggle for survival, “at the background is always the question of ‘what if the virus returns? Are they prepared this time?’” she says. The officials in fact are doing everything they can to prevent CDV in the future. Following the containment, all other lions have been immunised, there is constant, vigorous health monitoring, more lions are radio collared for ease of tracking, dogs and cattle in nearby villages have been vaccinated, and every measure is being taken to make sure the virus doesn’t return. “Prevention is the biggest focus now. And being alert all the time, in case something like this happens again.”

With such rigorous monitoring and intervention however, the meaning of ‘wildlife’ is starting to change.

“Honestly, wildlife within the national park, people say, is no longer wildlife, because if you look at all the other wildlife which has been conserved in our national parks, it has to be monitored,” says Bhatnagar. With Gir in particular, there’s no tangible boundary or fence around the park, and without close monitoring, they’ll wander out, into the villages and to potential conflict. Without intervention, we inevitably risk losing the species. “But if we do, to what extent can we intervene? It is a moral dilemma. You have to find the right balance.”

The Lion Kingdom New series documents fight against canine distemper outbreak in Gujarats Gir forest

Even as the continuing rigorous conservation is lauded, this success story has arrived at the same chapter as every other success story: conflict. “Now the number [of lions] is so big that the boundaries are not enough. They need to create more space.” And as the lion-loving Gir struggles to carve out more area for lions, Gujarat also dismisses any notion of letting lions into other states, wanting to maintain its seemingly egoistic monopoly. Even if they were willing to move lions, finding a space in India where the lions would be safe, the land populated with prey, where people wouldn't be uprooted to make space, and where the lions wouldn't come into conflict with humans, is a complicated challenge.

This dilemma then is reflective of a bigger problem in India. "There’s the same story with tigers. How do you carve out a space for India’s wildlife when more and more areas are under human population?” Humans, while the antagonists in conflict with wildlife, are also their closest allies. “You have to marvel at the people. Despite the fact that you hear about conflict, it’s surprising that both in terms of tigers and lions, the conservation is a success.

Because people want to coexist.

We all have to be very proud of the fact that India still manages to sustain and grow such a wide range of wildlife, despite the population.”

The Lion Kingdom that will premiere on 27 January on Animal Planet and Animal Planet HD.

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