India’s wildlife veterinary system needs an upgrade to tackle zoonotic diseases

  • After a tiger tested positive for COVID-19 in a zoo in New York in early April, authorities in India sent advisories to all zoos, tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries to protect the animals.
  • Veterinarians are an important component in zoos as well as in protected areas to ensure proper health of animals. But experts admit that there is a shortage of veterinarians and a lack of training on handling wild animal diseases.
  • The government authorities, as well as veterinarians themselves, admit that there is a need for upgrading the veterinary ecosystem and for capacity building of veterinary doctors. Their current education is primarily focused around livestock and thus they are not fully equipped to deal with wild animals.
  • The experts emphasise that in a world where zoonotic diseases are increasing, a robust system to deal with them is the need of the hour.

Earlier this month, after a tiger in the Bronx Zoo in New York tested positive for COVID-19, authorities in India had put the zoos and protected areas, including the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, on high alert. However, one important cog in the wheel in the protection of animals from diseases – the veterinary ecosystem – needs capacity building to properly handle such cases. 

Soon after the Bronx Zoo case, the first known case of an animal with COVID-19, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued an advisory on April 6, regarding containing and management of COVID-19 in national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves stating that it felt there is a possibility of spread of the virus among animals in these places and also the transmission of the virus from humans to animals and vice versa. In the Bronx Zoo case it is suspected that the big cat was exposed to a zoo employee who was infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. 

The ministry had asked the officials to take a series of steps like reducing the human-wildlife interface, restricting the movement of people to national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves, constituting a task force with field managers, veterinary doctors, frontline staff, to manage the situation, create round the clock reporting mechanism for swift management of any cases noticed, setting up essential services for emergency treatment of animals and their safe release back to their natural habitats, as and when required, enhancing disease surveillance, mapping and monitoring system. 

India’s Central Zoo Authority (CZA), which is the nodal authority for more than 160 zoos across the country, had also issued an advisory on April 6 asking the zoos to remain on high alert, monitor animals round the clock using CCTVs and specifically look out for any abnormal behaviours, not allow animal handlers without safety gears near animals and have the least contact with animals while providing them feed. The CZA had also advised to specially monitor mammals like cats, ferrets and primates. A similar advisory was also issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) to all states that have tiger reserves.

Shortage of vets and low knowledge of wildlife diseases 

CZA’s Member Secretary S.P. Yadav emphasised that zoos in India are well equipped and there is no shortage of veterinarians but the real issue is regarding the capacity building of such experts.

“There is no shortage of veterinarians in the country as far as zoos are concerned as no zoo can get recognition from the CZA until they have a veterinary officer. However, the real issue is the capacity building of the veterinarians in the country with respect to dealing with several wildlife species and all types of diseases in them. There is no focused college or institution that deals with diseases related to wildlife. At present, the veterinary institutions that are there in the country deal mostly with cattle, poultry and swine. Majority of their education deals with these animals. But then these experts are expected to deal with diseases connected with all animals. That is the real challenge,” Yadav told Mongabay-India.

However, outside of zoos, the number of veterinarians, in addition to their capacity to deal with diseases is wild animals, is low. In October 2019, the MoEFCC had written to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) highlighting that in many tiger reserves there are no veterinary doctors and they are banking on the services of local government veterinarians. The ministry had asked the NTCA to advise all states to appoint full-time veterinary doctors in tiger reserves and organise regular training for veterinarians of the animal husbandry departments, posted in the vicinity of tiger reserves, to equip them to deal with the wild animals. 

Vaibhav Singh, who is divisional forest officer, Rudraprayag (Uttarakhand) informed that in Uttarakhand they have a sanctioned strength of seven veterinary officers for a total of 17 protected areas including two tiger reserves and two recognised zoos.

“There is certainly a shortage of veterinarians. For instance, in many cases, when we have required assistance from vets, it has taken them hours to reach us. There should be a veterinary officer for every wildlife division. But apart from the problem of shortage, the capacity of veterinary officers to deal with wild animals is an issue as they primarily deal with the livestock and are not majorly taught about wild animals. After their studies in veterinary institutions, they get basic training on dealing with wild animals for a month or two. In today’s world, zoonotic diseases are increasingly becoming common and in such a scenario, their role assumes huge importance,” Singh told Mongabay-India.

Singh further said that it is high time that veterinary officers and forest divisions work in close coordination. “One of the important steps that needs to be taken is vaccination of livestock living on the periphery of forests so that no disease is transmitted to wild animals.”

The central government had previously organised workshops for the capacity building of veterinarians to deal with wild animals but much more efforts are needed to bridge the gap as is evident in the face of the pandemic.

Veterinary officials and forest department involved in a rescue of a wild animal in Uttarakhand. Photo courtesy Vaibhav Singh.

According to the World Health Organisation, COVID-19 has spread across 213 countries so far with at least 2,883,603 confirmed cases and 198,842 deaths (as of April 28, 2020). 

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OiE) has maintained that though the novel coronavirus emerged from an animal source the predominant route of transmission of COVID-19 is from human to human. It held that now that the coronavirus infections are widely distributed in the human population there is a possibility for some animals to become infected through close contact with infected humans. 

Subsequent to the case of a tiger in New York zoo, some cases of dogs and cats (domestic cats) have tested positive to COVID-19 virus following close contact with infected humans. 

After the initial information on April 5 that a female tiger had tested positive for COVID-19 and three other tigers and three African lions were showing similar symptoms, a new statement from the New York’s Bronx Zoo on April 22 said that a total of eight animals had tested positive for COVID-19. The eight animals included five tigers and three lions. But it specified that none of the zoo’s snow leopards, cheetahs, clouded leopard, Amur leopard, puma or serval were showing any signs of illness. 

“Our cats were infected by a staff person who was asymptomatically infected with the virus or before that person developed symptoms,” the statement said while adding that preventive measures are now in place for all staff who are caring for them, and the other cats to prevent further exposure of animals to the disease.

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Veterinary ecosystem requires an overall upgrade

In addition to zoos, national parks or wildlife sanctuaries veterinary facilities across the country also need urgent attention and an upgrade. 

Kunal Dev Sharma, who is a director at the Max Vets Hospital (a veterinary facility with clinics across India), expressed that capacity building of veterinarians is an urgent requirement.  

“In India, wherever veterinary science is being taught the emphasis is on livestock and production of animals … Nearly 90 percent of the veterinary education revolves around that. Anyone who wishes to gain more knowledge related to wild animals either needs to take up specialised courses or travel abroad and that may not be possible for everyone. As far as COVID-19 is concerned, all the cases of this disease in animals is due to transmission from humans to and not from animals to humans. But still, in the past few weeks, we have got information about people abandoning their pets due to fear,” Sharma told Mongabay-India.

Sharma explained that since the first day of the lockdown they have maintained strict code for all the staff at their clinics around the country, but there is still an acute shortage of safety gear and medicines etc. 

“The veterinary ecosystem in the country is not robust enough. In our smaller centres in some cities, the whole supply chain has been badly disturbed and due to that, we had to close a few of them. Overall, the veterinary system is not prepared to address concerns of wild animals as the overall knowledge is poor,” said Sharma. 

Many pets including dogs and cats have been abandoned by people during COVID-19 lockdown. Photo courtesy Gauri Maulekhi.

When the nationwide lockdown was first announced in March, veterinary services were included in the list of essential services.

Animal Rights activist Gauri Maulekhi, who is also the trustee in People For Animals, an organisation working for the welfare of animals, said it is not just COVID-19 that requires the attention of veterinarians. “At least five states in India are reeling under avian influenza and thousands of pigs in Assam have died of a new virus. Glanders and Tuberculosis in equines and livestock is on the rise. Also, the indiscriminate use of antibiotics and growth hormones given to fatten up livestock and poultry for meat is adversely impacting human health building up to another disaster in the not so distant future.

“This is in addition to all misinformation regarding COVID-19 and its spread in animals. In such a scenario, veterinary preparedness assumes huge importance. Despite veterinary services being included in the list of essential services, such facilities were shut in several areas during the initial period of the lockdown. The worst thing is that there are no safety gears for veterinarians dealing with localised zoonotic epidemics,” Maulekhi told Mongabay-India.

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Banner image: There are over 350 tigers in zoos across India. Photo by Arunmozhi Rajavel/Wikimedia Commons.

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