Project Cheetah, a year on

How many cheetahs are there under the project currently? What are the various reasons for the deaths of the cheetahs? Has this project distracted attention away from other conservation projects for endangered species?

September 17, 2023 10:05 pm | Updated September 18, 2023 11:31 am IST

 A wild cheetah being released at the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh.

A wild cheetah being released at the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: The first batch of eight cheetahs from Namibia arrived on September 17, 2022, officially launching Project Cheetah, India’s cheetah introduction programme. An overview of the project as it completes one year.

Why have African cheetahs been introduced in India?

The goal of the introduction of African cheetahs is to “establish viable cheetah metapopulation in India that allows the cheetah to perform its functional role as a top predator and provides space for the expansion of the cheetah within its historical range thereby contributing to its global conservation efforts.”

This effectively means that the project aims to enable cheetahs to establish themselves as viable and free-ranging populations in large unfenced wildlife reserves which are in turn connected by wildlife corridors to other unfenced reserves.

What is the status of the project?

In total, 20 adult African cheetahs have been imported so far. The first batch of eight cheetahs arrived on September 17, 2022 and another batch of 12 cheetahs from South Africa arrived on February 18, 2023. In late March 2023, one of the females gave birth to a litter of four cubs which were conceived in India.

Watch | How has ‘Project Cheetah’ progressed in India?

After prolonged periods of quarantine which ranged from 50 to more than 70 days (the prescribed period of quarantine is 30 days), the cheetahs were released from their quarantine enclosures into larger holding enclosures, so that they could acclimatise themselves to the local habitats and environmental conditions. The plan was to first release male coalitions after about 1 to 2 months of them getting acclimatised in the larger enclosures. This was to be followed by the release of females, 1-4 weeks after the release of the males.

The release of the cheetahs to run free in the wild was delayed with the first cheetah being released after more than 100 days in the larger enclosure. So far, only 12 of the 20 cheetahs were ever released into the wild, with a few being brought back multiple times to the Kuno National Park (KNP), since the managers felt that the cats were moving into areas that may have posed risks for their survival.

Six of the cheetahs which came from Africa have died. Four while still in captivity and two in the wild. Four of the adult cheetahs are yet to be released to run free even for a single day. Additionally, three of the four cubs have died and the only remaining cub is being hand reared as its mother has rejected it.

A cheetah named Siyaya, who translocated to Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh from Namibia on 17th September 2022, gave birth to four cubs. File.

A cheetah named Siyaya, who translocated to Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh from Namibia on 17th September 2022, gave birth to four cubs. File. | Photo Credit: ANI

Since the deaths of the three cheetahs in July-August, all 10 of the remaining free cheetahs have been captured and kept captive in enclosures for observation, removal of radio-collars and treatment. Safely capturing these cheetahs, especially a female whose radio-collar was functioning only intermittently, is no small feat and the efforts, skills, determination and dedication displayed by the field teams has to be appreciated.

Currently, from the available information, on the first anniversary of the project, all the surviving 14 adult cheetahs and one cub are in captivity and there is talk of them being radio-collared again and released once the winter sets in. The project authorities are talking of additional sites being prepared for releasing the cheetahs such as the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary, both in Madhya Pradesh. Gandhi Sagar is expected to be ready by the end of this year while Nauradehi is likely to be ready sometime in 2024. The project authorities are also talking of importing more cheetahs from Africa sometime next year.

Why did the cheetahs die?

There have been a variety of reasons and causes attributed to the deaths of the six adults and three cubs. Radio collars are not the underlying reason for the deaths of any of these cats, at least that is the officially stated position. One needs to determine if the African cheetahs are susceptible to certain insects and parasites in India, and if the collars provide a micro-environment conducive for these to thrive.

Also read: Explained | Why are cheetah cubs dying in Kuno reserve?

The first cheetah which died is said to have perished due to a renal condition. The question that arises is why the Government of India agreed to bring a cheetah which was sick and put it through more stress by transporting it and having it adapt to a new environment. One of the females died when authorities attempted to get the cheetah to mate inside the enclosure. Three of the four cubs born in India are reported to have died due to heatwave conditions. This raises more questions — if they were born in March 2023, that means the mating took place in India, in captivity; why then was there a rush to mate the cheetahs in captivity when it could occur naturally in a free-ranging environment after their release as prescribed in the Action Plan?

One of the males is reported to have died due to cardio-pulmonary failure but what caused it (the ultimate cause), has still not been determined. The last three deaths occurred during the monsoon. While there have been several conflicting reports regarding the cause of their deaths, no definitive cause has been shared in the public domain.

Even though the cheetahs were under constant monitoring, nine deaths have occurred. It is time the authorities reassess the approach and act decisively so that one can prevent such deaths, especially when the animals are in captivity. We also have to be cognisant of the effects of long periods of captivity on the fitness of these cats to be released to run free in the wild.

Were these mortalities expected?

The mortalities in captivity were not anticipated nor planned for. Similarly, the deaths of the three cubs during summer and the three adults in the monsoon were also not expected.

To add to the confusion, while conducting the Population Habitat Viability Assessments, the mortality rates of 15% for adults and 50%, 60% and 70% for cubs were used. However, now, project authorities are quoting higher values while discussing the mortalities that have occurred. This looks like an attempt to somehow justify that these mortalities were expected and within predicted levels.

What has been the impact of the project on the conservation of other endangered species?

Unfortunately, the very high-profile cheetah project has definitely distracted attention and probably also diverted financial resources from much needed conservation projects like the ones for the Great Indian Bustard and the translocation of Asiatic lions, to mention a few. Project Cheetah has also been called upon as a means to save grasslands and other open natural ecosystems. However, given the challenges that the cheetahs have faced in surviving even in captivity and the lack of sufficient suitable habitats for them, using African cheetahs to conserve grasslands and grassland-dependent species is clearly a faulty strategy.

What are the lessons to be learnt?

Without proper and adequate habitats, there is no point in importing more cheetahs. Creating more glorified safari parks won’t solve the issue. The real strategy lies in learning from past mistakes and focusing on the establishment of high-quality habitats covering at least 5,000 square kilometres before bringing more cheetahs from Africa. We cannot rely on simply importing more cheetahs to establish a viable population while neglecting its habitat requirements. The other weakness has been the lack of wider consultation and transparency. This definitely needs to improve.

The writer is CEO, Metastring Foundation and Coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative

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