A Pakistani zoo faces an investigation after two “extremely rare” 11-week-old white tiger cubs died in January from what is thought to be the coronavirus.
The cubs died in the Lahore Zoo on January 30.
Their death came just days after they started treatment for feline panleukopenia virus, a disease that targets cats’ immune systems and is common in Pakistan.
But an autopsy found the cubs’ lungs were badly damaged and they were suffering from severe infection, with pathologists concluding they died from COVID-19.
White tigers – which are a rare colour morph of a Bengal tiger, rather than a separate species – are very rare. In 2017, the Indian Tiger Welfare Society estimated there were only about 200 left in the world.
Zoo deputy director Kiran Saleem told Reuters that some of the zoo’s officials had been confirmed to have the virus.
COVID has killed more than 12,200 people in Pakistan.
“After [the tigers’] death, the zoo administration conducted tests of all officials, and six were tested positive, including one official who handled the cubs,” Mr Saleem said.
“It strengthens the findings of the autopsy. The cubs probably caught the virus from the person handling and feeding them.”
Pakistan’s zoos have also been targeted by animal rights activists. They say many animals live in poor conditions and suffer mistreatment, leading to hundreds of deaths.
Zufishan Anushay, founder of JFK (Justice for Kiki) Animal Rescue And Shelter, accused the zoo’s management of “negligence”, according to Reuters.
“The last two white tiger cubs have died at Lahore Zoo and once again the negligence of the management and authorities has come out,” Mr Anushay said.
“White tigers are extremely rare and need a specific habitat and environment to live a healthy life. By caging them in unhygienic conditions with no medical arrangements, we will keep witnessing these incidents.”