Are cheetahs at home?

Concerns raised on progress of Project Cheetah after more than a year since translocation of the wild cats

The year 2023 has been eventful for Project Cheetah, which has so far seen 20 of the big cats from Namibia and South Africa find a new home in Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh. After more than a year following the first arrivals in September 2022, government officials and those involved in Project Cheetah laud it as a massive success, claiming that more than 50 per cent of the big cats (14 of 20) have survived. However, wildlife experts and scientists believe there is little to cheer about the progress of the introduction project. Despite spending months on Indian soil, the cheetahs have failed to completely acclimatise and are not truly living in the wild, they opine.

In the Cheetah Action Plan prepared in January 2022, the Union government anticipated that about half the translocated wild cats could be lost due to reasons such as attacks by leopards, poaching, road accidents, poisoning and other unnatural causes. However, in “Introduction of Cheetah in India, 2022-23”, an annual report on the initiative, the authorities state, “All cheetah individuals released in the wild fared well and showed no aberrations in their natural behaviour. It is encouraging to observe that no unnatural deaths happened to any of the cheetahs released in free ranging conditions despite they had traversed long distances in human dominated areas.”

The cheetahs that were released were first introduced to a hunting boma (enclosure) in Kuno National Park and subsequently allowed in the wild. It is important to note here that the time spent in the wild by these cats has been rather limited. In fact, at least two of the eight Namibian cheetahs have never been released since arriving in India in September 2022. Such confinement is unfamiliar for these cheetahs, which were either free-ranging individuals that were captured because they got involved in conflict (in the case of Namibia) or roamed in large fenced reserves (in the case of South Africa).

Addressing the six deaths, the authorities note that a few mortalities of the translocated cheetahs occurred due to bacterial infection, maggots, renal failure, injuries and heat. The first death was reported to be on March 27, 2023, when Namibian cheetah Sasha died of kidney ailments. In the following months, five adult translocated cheetahs died due to septicaemia or mating-related injuries. Now, seven adult males and females remain. Two of them, Asha and Oban (renamed Pawan) also ventured outside Kuno to the border near Uttar Pradesh, although officials said this is normal behaviour to explore the landscape.

On March 29, 2023, Namibian cheetah Siyaya (rechristened as Jwala), gave birth to a litter of four. Only one female cub has survived, and has been rejected by her mother (who has never experienced parenthood). She will probably remain in an enclosure for most of her life.

Questions on cheetah wellbeing

The sudden and multiple deaths, of adults as well as the cubs, within a short span marred the introduction project with controversies, raising questions on the management and scientific approach on the project. In May 2023, the Supreme Court took cognisance of the deaths, and as more casualties were reported in July and August, it reiterated the need to avoid them. The court also questioned whether the cheetahs needed to be shifted to a more suitable habitat, such as in Rajasthan.

Fearing further deaths due to infection or other causes and pressure from politicians on authorities, all the surviving free-ranging cheetahs were immediately recaptured and rushed to the enclosure with a direct order from the Cheetah Project Steering Committee, a group formed of Indian and international experts to monitor and manage Project Cheetah, constituted by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. In December, however, the Steering Committee approved released of three males and one female (one male, Agni, was tranquilised and brought back into the enclosure within a week because it ventured outside the buffer zone of Kuno).

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In August, experts involved in the project such as veterinarian Adrian Tordiffe, Mike Toft, Andy Frazer and renowned cheetah expert Laurie Marker, who worked on the translocation from Namibia, wrote to the Supreme Court raising their concerns on the management of the wild cats. The experts alleged that despite being the members of Steering Committee, they were not kept informed of updates by the authorities from India. This hindered the health monitoring efforts and the possibility of saving the cheetahs. They claimed that their willingness and repeated requests to offer help were ignored. Moreover, the lack of communication from Indian authorities made them “mere window dressing” for the project.

Concerns on the lack of transparency and effective management in handling the surviving cheetahs have only grown stronger over the past few months. Moreover, JS Chouhan, chief wildlife warden of Madhya Pradesh, Y V Jhala, former dean at Wildlife Institute of India (WII) along with Tordiffe and Marker—all of whom played key roles in bringing and supporting the wellbeing of cheetahs—are now dissociated from Project Cheetah.

Other wildlife experts, who wish to remain anonymous, have also analysed the series of events during the year and shared expressed concerns over the management of the species, suitability of Kuno to introduce cheetahs and the capabilities of the authorities who have less training and know-how on handling the species without prior experience.

For instance, they say infection due to maggots, which led to some of the cheetah deaths, did not happen overnight. The officials may have realised the infection as the animals would have lived in pain, irritation and uneasiness for several days before the fatality. The cats, like other felines, would have also developed winter coats anticipating winter months in South Africa, as against the monsoon period in India. The sudden and excess rains caused moisture in their collars due to winter coats, leading to infestation of flies and eventually maggots. However, the four veterinarians and as well as African experts deployed at Kuno failed to spot the symptoms and diagnose and diseases, allege the experts.

This is despite the fact that such incidences have been reported among tiger, Asiatic lion and macaque populations in India, and timely interventions have helped save them.

The researchers also claim that the death of the three cubs was due to negligence on part of the officials. Reportedly, the cubs died of starvation, heat and dehydration, along with maggot infection, which could have been avoided with proper monitoring.

Source: “Introduction of Cheetah in India, 2022-23”, National Tiger Conservation Authority, Wildlife Institute of India and Madhya Pradesh Forest Department

Fundamental flaws in implementation

Beyond the deaths, it becomes imperative to understand that apart from the success of population survival management under a strictly controlled environment, there are other milestones the project has failed to achieve.

Experts on big cats such as Ravi Chellam, chief executive officer of Metastring Foundation and coordinator at Biodiversity Collaborative, and Dharmendra Khandal, conservation biologist with Tiger Watch, claim that keeping cheetahs under confinement for long times, as seen at Kuno, may be disastrous for the animals. Not to mention the frequent tranquilising for bringing them back from the open range.

WII, which is overseeing the project, has fixed objectives for success such as cheetah establishing home ranges in Kuno, reproducing in the wild, some wild born cubs surviving for over a year and tourism-based livelihoods for the relocated communities (Kuno was opened to tourists in December 2023). However, Chellam believes that such goals are far-fetched in the absence of strong scientific foundations and unwillingness to address the fundamental flaws in the project.

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For instance, Chellam says that grassland species like wolf, caracal, blackbuck, lesser florican, Asiatic lion and great Indian bustard extant in the country could have been conserved rather than spending on an expensive cheetah reintroduction project. Even the National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-31) did not mention the introduction of cheetahs and hence it was not considered a national priority. Chellam says that the Supreme Court had also quashed the Union government’s plans to introduce African cheetahs to Kuno. The National Tiger Conservation Authority had filed an appeal for review of this judgement in 2016, after which the court had passed an order in January 2020 to survey additional sites.

According to a document titled “Assessment of Cheetah Introduction Sites and Proposed Actions — Technical Note”, published in January 2021 by WII and the forest departments of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, six sites—Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary, Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary, Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve, Madhav National Park, Shergarh Wildlife Sanctuary and Kuno National Park—were assessed in just about 12 days. Kuno received the longest time of four days while the remaining five sites managed to receive a collective time of eight days, which reflects a rushed approach in the field surveys.

Moreover, the action plan for Project Cheetah, announced by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) in January 2022, stated its objective as “To use the cheetah as a charismatic flagship and umbrella species to garner resources for restoring open forest and Savanna systems that will benefit biodiversity and ecosystem services from these ecosystems.” But Chellam questions that if the government is serious about conserving open forest and savannah systems, then the current practice of classifying these as “wastelands” should be stopped. It is also uncertain whether a viable cheetah population would actually help conserve grasslands.

As per Chellam’s calculation, about 20 cheetahs will be introduced annually for the next 8-10 years, estimating at least 160 animals being brought into the country. The Cheetah Action Plan states that the project would be termed as success if the established population reaches 21, the maximum carrying capacity of Kuno, which has an area spanning 748 sq km. According to the calculations, Kuno, the “most suitable” site, can accommodate only about 10 to 15 cheetahs. The action plan says if 3,300 sq km more is restored, the cheetah numbers can reach a maximum of 21 in 15 years and 36 by 30 to 40 more years.

Chellam says that these timelines are too long, the projected costs are very high and the geographies that would be covered are too limited for the introduced African cheetahs to have any impact on the conservation of open natural ecosystems like grasslands and the species residing there. Since many of these species are critically endangered, like the great Indian bustard, they need immediate and focused conservation action. He affirms that it is clear that there is no way that cheetahs will help conserve grasslands in India, given the indicated timelines and the very limited geographical distribution which the cheetahs will inhabit. There are far more efficient and effective as well as inexpensive ways of conserving grasslands.

Chellam explains that even in best habitats such as the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in Kenya and Tanzania, cheetahs live in very low densities of about one or two per 100 sq km. An average female home territory has been estimated to be about 750 sq km.

There are other concerns on management of cheetahs. For the first two translocations, cheetah mitras (friends of the cheetah) were roped in from 55 villages around Kuno and promised livelihood opportunities from cheetah tourism. This has not materialised yet. According to media reports, these mitras dropped from 400 to 40 in a year.

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Source: Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, media reports
Infographic: Tarun Sehgal

Results need more time

Experts from South Africa such as Vincent van der Merwe, manager of the Metapopulation initiative in South Africa who was involved in the translocation, explain that reintroduction of wild animals across different continents is “highly complex”. The deaths are not unusual, he says, adding that in South Africa, it took the loss of over 200 cheetahs and more than 26 years to standardise reintroduction protocols and achieve success. Between 1966 and 1996, nine out of 10 South African reintroduction attempts completely failed, he says.

Local village communities have also pointed to the lack of prey for the cheetahs living in the wild, which would lead them to move farther in search of food and endanger domesticated animals living in inhabited areas. In a meeting held by the Steering Committee in October 2023, the officials decided not to release the cheetahs in the wild unless an adequate prey base is established of 35 to 50 animals per sq km.

The meeting took the decision of directing WII to conduct a fresh assessment on prey availability. This contradicts the Cheetah Action Plan which claimed chital population density of 38.38 individuals per sq km and 51.58 animals per sq km for all its prey species and confirms the fears expressed by experts about lack of prey-base. When contacted, however, the officials deny receiving such instructions. In November, Uttam Sharma, director of Kuno, denied that there was inadequate prey base at the park.

The annual report of Project Cheetah also mentions the need to develop the Kuno habitat to protect the imported wild cats and eventually develop it as a cheetah source area that would replenish the declining sink populations of cheetahs beyond the national park. It alludes to the limited availability of the prey. However, it fails to introspect, analyse and address these issues and claims the progress made so far is on a favourable trajectory within envisioned limitations and moving in the right direction.

Taking a step ahead, the government has planned to prepare the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh by the end of 2023 to release more cheetahs translocated from South Africa. Officials earlier involved in the project claim, on the condition of anonymity, that it is obvious for South Africa to send cheetahs to India for commercial gains. However, the worrying aspect is that Namibia, which had gifted its cheetahs to Indian as a goodwill gesture, is unwilling to send them again considering the poor management and lack of communication.

Indian officials have expressed interest in looking for other countries in North Africa that would be willing to give its cheetahs—which ideally do not develop winter coats during the Indian monsoon. The Union government in December 2023 approached Kenya, according to media reports. India also plans to help the government of Iran with the conservation of the Asiatic cheetah in a yet-to-be-announced initiative.

Experts, who wish to remain anonymous, fear that if such an approach continues, Project Cheetah would end up becoming a vanity project or a glorified safari park.

They warn that if cheetahs are not released it will be a death knell to the conservation project and Kuno will turn into a safari park. With the species’ ecological requirements being ignored and the disregard of science, cheetahs stare at a caged future rather than living as a free-ranging species in the wild.

This was first published in the State of India’s Environment 2024


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