The Indian Cheetah: Death by 'Revival'

With 3 deaths in 2 months, there is mounting evidence—if further proof were needed—that the introduction of African cheetahs to India's wilds was ill-advised, says Dharmendra Khandal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi overseeing the release of the African wild cheetahs into Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh, on 17 September 2022 (photo: Indian Press Information Bureau/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi overseeing the release of the African wild cheetahs into Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh, on 17 September 2022 (photo: Indian Press Information Bureau/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Dharmendra Khandal

The cheetah project at Kuno National Park is facing multiple challenges and uncertainties. Three cheetahs brought from Africa have already died, with many others confined to small enclosures awaiting release. Those that have been released into the forest are repeatedly venturing out into nearby agricultural fields, leading to extensive search efforts by dozens of forest guards, who often resort to chemical immobilisation to bring them back.

In light of this situation, the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department has expressed concerns about the small size of Kuno National Park and requested the immediate relocation of some cheetahs to another location. These challenges have in turn cast a shadow of uncertainty over the future of the Cheetah Project.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the main Opposition party has questioned the government’s decision to send cheetahs to India. On the other hand, wildlife experts within the Indian government view the deaths of the cheetahs as a ‘normal’ occurrence, with other experts expressing concerns that more may die in the future.

Most experts have realised that the unlikelihood of cheetahs ranging freely on Indian soil is a more worrisome issue than the recent deaths. Unless a solution is found soon, after all, the remaining cheetahs may also be at risk. Furthermore, there are concerns that the health of the cheetahs from South Africa will deteriorate as they have been kept in captivity for a prolonged period.

Why is the Kuno National Park, initially selected as the best possible site for the cheetahs, no longer considered a suitable area for them? The truth is that there were numerous flaws in the selection of Kuno.

One significant problem was the failure of experts to accurately estimate the carrying capacity of Kuno for cheetahs. The well-known scientist from the Wildlife Institute of India who prepared the action plan has been inconsistent in his statements about the carrying capacity of the park. While the action plan claims that 21 cheetahs can be accommodated in Kuno, the suitability assessment plan stated twice the number. Meanwhile, a group of researchers studying cheetahs in Namibia believe that Kuno can only sustain seven cheetahs, based on the area of the park.

Kuno National Park is composed of hilly dense forests, rugged riverine forests with a high density of leopards, and also has sporadic inflows of tigers from Ranthambhore. All these factors also make Kuno an unsuitable area for cheetahs.

It is now being suggested that the prey density in Kuno National Park is insufficient for the cheetahs as well. A few years ago, scientists believed that there were 60 spotted deer per square kilometre in Kuno, but now the estimate has decreased to less than 20. The reason for this decline is not yet clear, although some officials speculate that the habitat changes made to accommodate the cheetahs in Kuno, such as the removal of trees and bushes to create open grasslands, have made the area unsuitable for deer species. Deer in India have been observed to prefer small patches of grass-lands over large open spaces, which they find insecure. To address the insufficient prey density in Kuno National Park for cheetahs, officials have been bringing prey animals from other areas for release in Kuno—but it is a tedious and time-consuming process.

Before the introduction of the African cheetahs, it was understood that India does not have vast grasslands, but it was argued that cheetahs have also historically occurred in scrub lands and forests in addition to open grasslands. This argument was based on a paper published on historical cheetah records, which includes records of several captive cheetahs, thus rendering the description of the historical occurrence area for cheetahs in India flawed.

Existing historical records are insufficient to confirm the precise occurrence area of cheetahs in India. Over the past 250 years, only 22 cheetah specimens have been discovered in the country, compared to more than 43,000 tigers and leopards that were processed by a single taxidermy firm in Mysore over a century.

The low number of cheetah specimens raises questions about their historical occurrence area in India, and even among these 22 specimens, none of them provide enough conclusive evidence to confirm their historical occurrence area in the country. Describing the exact historical area of occupation and habitat use of cheetahs in India is challenging.

Many experts believe that based on historical records alone, it is possible that cheetahs may have never naturally occurred in India or were limited to the west of present-day Pakistan.

A fresco painting in Bara Mahal of Kota, Rajasthan, 16th century shows a captive big cat with a long tail, slender body and short fat stripes (photo courtesy Dharmendra Khandal)
A fresco painting in Bara Mahal of Kota, Rajasthan, 16th century shows a captive big cat with a long tail, slender body and short fat stripes (photo courtesy Dharmendra Khandal)
Dharmendra Khandal

Insufficient historical evidence to map the precise occurrence area of cheetahs in India poses a challenge to the feasibility of reintroducing them back into the country. Moreover, the low number of cheetah specimens found in India over the last 250 years raises the possibility that the country’s habitat and ecological conditions may not be favourable for cheetahs to thrive. This underscores the importance of conducting thorough research and analysis before introducing any species into a new environment, as it can have significant ecological and conservation implications.

The interpretation of historical data on cheetahs in India is also made doubly challenging due to both visual and nomenclatural conflation with leopards by historical sources. This has led to the erroneous belief that cheetahs were once naturally widespread in India. However, in reality, there may not be a suitable habitat for cheetahs in the country. Despite this, cheetahs were introduced based on an overestimated carrying capacity, a much higher prey density and also unscientific inferences made from historical data.

After extensive surveys, Kuno was chosen as the most suitable site for the introduction of cheetahs, following which the area underwent habitat restoration over a period of 20 years. It is apparent that other potential sites may not have received such significant efforts towards wildlife conservation and habitat development.

Now, with only 17 adult cheetahs remaining, large enclosures have been built to hold them, which goes against their natural behaviour. The responsibility of ensuring the well-being of these cheetahs in captivity is challenging, and the option of importing cheetahs from Africa to replace the ones that die is not sustainable.

The only way to keep cheetahs in India is in enclosures, which involves cutting down trees, driving away leopards and keeping veterinarians on high alert. Similar preparations are now being made in the Gandhinagar Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.

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