Explained | How are cheetahs faring in India?

Why is India’s cheetah relocation programme one of the most ambitious of its kind in the world? How many cheetahs have died so far? How are the cheetahs being acclimatised to Indian conditions? Are there plans to build more cheetah enclosures and reserves?

Updated - July 18, 2023 08:56 am IST

Published - July 17, 2023 10:37 pm IST

A cheetah named Siyaya gave birth to four cubs in May at the Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh. 

A cheetah named Siyaya gave birth to four cubs in May at the Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh.  | Photo Credit: ANI

The story so far: As more deaths of cheetahs have been reported last week from the Kuno National Park (KNP), Madhya Pradesh, an expert committee charged with managing the Project Cheetah programme has recommended that all animals undergo a thorough medical review.

What is Project Cheetah?

Project Cheetah is India’s cheetah relocation programme and is perhaps among the most ambitious of its kind in the world. The attempt is to, over the next decade, bring in 5-10 animals every year until a self-sustaining population of about 35 cheetahs is established. Unlike cheetahs in South Africa and Namibia that are living in fenced reserves, India’s plan is to have them grow in natural, unfenced, wild conditions.

As of today, 11 of the translocated cheetahs are in the true wild with four in specially designed one-square-kilometre enclosures called ‘bomas,’ to help the animals acclimatise to Indian conditions. Five of the translocated animals and three of four cubs born in India have died.

Why the need for a medical review?

One of the cheetahs, nicknamed Surya, was found dead in KNP last week. Veterinarians examining the animal saw a wound on its neck, infected with maggots. The larvae of the maggots were also found on the radio-collar fitted onto the cheetah’s neck. There was a chance that chafing from the collar may have indirectly sickened the cheetah. The collars that the cheetahs wear are made from polystyrene and equipped with a radio-frequency tracking chip that helps monitor the animals. While ideally expected to not interfere with the animal’s movement, it is known to pose obstructions. Coupled with the moisture from the monsoon season — something that South African cheetahs aren’t acclimatised too — the animal may have been unable to lick itself clean which allowed parasites to fatally lodge inside the wound. There are veteran forest officers who say that radio-collaring is an extremely common practice in India among lions, tiger, leopards, elephants and never have they been linked to any such infections.

There is also a hypothesis that via the wound the African animal may have been exposed to parasites that Indian big-cats are usually resistant too. However, the Environment Ministry in a note on July 16 dismissed these suggestions as “hearsay…in the absence of scientific evidence.” To investigate these points, the expert committee has recommended that all surviving animals be subject to a thorough physical examination. This will involve removing their collars, taking tissue samples and checking for parasites. This will mean getting all the free-ranging animals back and subjecting them to an investigation — a long, laborious exercise — that will, at the end, significantly influence the future of the cheetah project.

Are the cheetah deaths unusual?

Two days before Surya, another cheetah, Tejas, was reported dead after being attacked by a female cheetah. This happened within the enclosure. While the official version goes that the cheetah died immediately after being fatally wounded, there are reports that Tejas, too, may have sustained an infection. In May, three of four cubs — the first litter born in India — died from heat and malnourishment. An adult female, Daksha, died following injuries involving a skirmish among the animals that same month. Two other animals, Sasha and Uday died in February and April from a renal infection and cardiovascular problems, respectively. Alarming as this may seem, experts say that cheetah cubs, in the wild, have a very high mortality rate relative to tigers and lions. Cheetah cubs, in the wild, reportedly have a survival rate of only 10% and roughly the same fraction make it to adulthood, a press release from the Environment Ministry noted. However, all the deaths in Kuno, save for Surya, have occurred among the cheetahs in the boma.

How successful has Project Cheetah been so far?

In September 2023, it will be one year since a batch of eight cheetahs from Namibia arrived in India. They were followed by 12 others from South Africa in February 2023. While conceived as an experiment that is susceptible to failure in the initial years, independent critics have argued that there are some basic flaws in the project.

For one, it is a mistake to have had all 20 cheetahs in KNP as it’s too little space and prey, given that the animal is a courser and needs large distances. Moreover, having cheetahs for extended periods in quarantine have affected their adaptive capabilities and caused them to have psychological adjustment problems, making them more vulnerable. Unlike tigers and leopards, cheetahs are relatively delicate animals and are more likely to be fatally injured in the wild. Currently, Indian cheetahs face no competition from other comparable predators such as lions and leopards. So, it remains to be seen if the animals can successfully establish themselves in India, over time.

While officials say that there is enough space and prey in the Kuno reserve, there are plans to develop a second reserve in Gandhisagar, Madhya Pradesh and also establish a cheetah rehabilitation centre.

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