Snap judgement: On India’s Project Cheetah

Every birth or death shouldn’t be seen as success or failure of Project Cheetah 

May 11, 2023 12:10 am | Updated 11:49 am IST

It is almost three months since South Africa sent a batch of 12 cheetahs to India and two have already died. Taken along with the death of one of the eight cheetahs from Namibia — it had a pre-existing renal infection — and it emerges that about 15% of the animals have not made it past the first phase of India’s ambitious Project Cheetah. The aim is to establish a sustainable population of about 35 cheetahs in the next decade by bringing in a few every year from Africa. Thus, it is implicit that there will be many deaths among the animals if one factors in both the natural lifespan of the cat as well as the challenges of adapting to Indian conditions. Daksha, one of the female cheetahs, died from injuries following a violent mating attempt by two males — again not entirely unexpected from what is known about the predator’s behaviour.

Ordinarily, the success of wildlife breeding programmes must be measured over longer intervals. The increase in the lion population in Gir, Gujarat, as well as tiger numbers have been the result of sustained efforts over decades, that have also seen the wildcat count dip to precipitous levels. Therefore, it is yet premature to weigh in on the success of the cheetah translocation programme. However, the arrival of the cheetahs in India was far from an ordinary event. For one, it capped decades of government planning undertaken since 2009, hearings in the Supreme Court, protracted negotiations with two countries, the complex logistics of choosing and ferrying the animals, the Prime Minister’s personal involvement in the enterprise, as well as the significant publicity effort by government departments to promote the endeavour as India’s exemplary commitment to wildlife conservation. It is thus only natural that three deaths in three months raise consternation on whether the conservation approach adopted by experts is based on sound principles. There is criticism that Kuno National Park is inadequate to host 20 cheetahs and that some ought to be in other sanctuaries. The existing batch of animals lived far too long in captivity (in preparation for the translocation) and thus were excessively stressed and more vulnerable, the argument goes. Project Cheetah managers however underline that the investments such as in making the landscape adequately stocked with prey, consultations with experts in Namibia and South Africa with actual experience in managing cheetahs, and cultural traditions that minimise poaching and incentivise local communities to be protective of wildcats, are the right ones to help the species flourish. Given that the relocation programme has been conceived as an ‘experiment’, it is important that every death and every birth are not seen as markers of failure or success. However, there also ought to be clearly defined criteria with timelines that project managers must adhere to, to decide if course correction is warranted.

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