Canine distemper is killing the big cats of India, and researchers are struggling to determine how widespread the problem is, and if it can be stopped.
There are little more than 3,000 tigers in the world, and half of that population is in India. During the British colonization of India, tigers were routinely shot as trophies by British expats, resulting in the reduction of the population from 40,000 to only 1,800.
Today, even though efforts were made in the mid 1990s to nurture the tiger population by designating protected reserves, their natural habitat has shrunk by 93 percent in order to accommodate the 1.2 billion human population. The tiger is the biggest of the big cats, and also the rarest.
Canine distemper is a fairly mild disease in dogs, but fatal to other carnivorous animals. Because the human population has encroached upon what little remains of the tiger’s habitat, dogs seem to be passing the virus to the wild tigers, although it is uncertain how three zoo tigers were infected.
Thus far, only four tigers have been found to have died from the disease, but many more could have succumbed – cats tend to hide themselves when they are ill, making their carcasses difficult to find. For the time being, tigers and lions living in zoos are being tested for the virus, but there is no vaccine for canine distemper for cats.
Other animals are also being infected. Officials found an infected red panda in Manipur and a zoo lion in Darjeeling.
Because the viral threat is minimal compared to poaching, hunting and human habitation, it is possible that no concrete action is taken regarding protecting the tiger population from the disease. Should authorities find more dead tigers, or if the disease turns into an epidemic, however, surviving tigers might be quarantined. The testing
Tiger poaching can yield huge profits; traditional Chinese medicine uses tiger teeth, bones and whiskers as anti-inflammatory agents. Moreover, livestock pens and homes often crowd into tigers’ habitat make people and their food sources vulnerable to tiger attacks, causing people to hunt them to protect themselves and their homes.
Combatting the disease would take a great many resources – resources the Indian government might not wish to yield. For the time being, officials might vaccinate local livestock and dogs against canine distemper and other similar illnesses, in case tigers are becoming infected by eating infected animals. Whatever course is ultimately taken, the survival of the largest cat species is at stake. With so few tigers remaining, it wouldn’t take much to eliminate them permanently.
 Daigle, Katy: India scrambles to save tigers from deadly virus Yahoo News 1/12/2014 https://news.yahoo.com/india-scrambles-save-tigers-deadly-virus-083439325.html