Wildlife scientists say bringing African cheetahs to India is an ill-advised move

There are unknown ecological, disease-related and genetic risks involved in replacing Asiatic cheetahs with the larger African cheetahs, eight wildlife experts write

Updated - October 20, 2022 10:09 pm IST

Published - October 20, 2022 08:17 pm IST - Bengaluru

Prime Minister Narendra Modi clicks photographs after releasing cheetahs inside a special enclosure of the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, on September 17, 2022.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi clicks photographs after releasing cheetahs inside a special enclosure of the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, on September 17, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

Eight wildlife scientists have raised concerns over the Central government's move to introduce African cheetahs in India.

The scientists, in an article titled “Introducing African cheetahs to India is an ill-advised conservation attempt”, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, said that there are unknown ecological, disease-related and genetic risks involved in replacing Asiatic cheetahs with the larger cheetahs from southern Africa.

From Namibia

Last month, eight cheetahs from Namibia were airlifted to India and released in the Kuno National Park by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Arjun M. Gopalaswamy, Femke Broekhuis, Leili Khalatbari, Michael G. L. Mills, Ravi Chellam, David Thuo, Abi Tamim Vanak and K. Ullas Karanth, the authors of the article, said that India’s plan is based on three unsubstantiated claims — that cheetahs have run out of space in Africa; that India currently has sufficient and suitable space for them; and that conservation translocations have been successful in wild cheetah range restoration efforts.

“The action plan appears to have substantially overestimated cheetah carrying capacity in the first release site (Kuno National Park), which is unfenced, harbouring about 500 feral cattle and surrounded by a forested landscape with 169 human settlements. Neither Kuno nor the other landscapes considered are of the size and quality to permit self-sustaining and genetically viable cheetah populations,” the authors said.

Dr. Gopalaswamy, the lead author of the article, said that the government plan ignores crucial scientific findings from important, recent demographic studies on free-ranging cheetahs.

"This can prove to be a costly mistake because the cheetah carrying capacities assumed in the plan relies entirely on projections made from a single, likely flawed, density estimate from Namibia from over a decade ago. We have already seen that despite massive investments made in counting tigers at a country-wide scale, on account of taking a similarly truncated view of abundance estimation science, India’s recent, official claims of doubling tiger numbers over a 12-year period quickly became scientifically indefensible," Dr. Gopalaswamy said.

He added that it was advisable to prepare a completely revised, rigorous, fully science-based action plan if India were to proceed with the idea of introducing cheetahs in the future.

‘No consultation, collaboration’

Dr. Karanth, co-author of the article, said that a project such as this requires genuine consultations and collaboration with the best intellectual capacity in the country. However, it was simply not harnessed, he said.

“As a result, this expensive, poorly conceived plan has no chance of establishing a viable self-sustaining population of free-ranging cheetahs — a vision which has been eloquently articulated by the Indian Prime Minister. It is likely to fail given the severe constraints of habitat quality and socio-economic pressures. Because the project chose to put ‘the cart before the horse’, it may end up as just another fenced-in zoo,” he said.

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