"Half the cheetahs could die in a year": Project Cheetah action plan expected this

The 'normal' expectation per the plan aside, long-term success seems impossible in Kuno

Representative image of Cheetahs (Photo: Getty Images)
Representative image of Cheetahs (Photo: Getty Images)

Dharmendra Khandal

The government considers the deaths of eight cheetahs to be expected, while some conservationists consider them disastrous developments. The action plan states that half the cheetahs could die within a year, and this would be normal.

However, the main concern is not just the deaths of cheetahs but rather their ability to adapt to conditions in the national park. On that front, there is no hope for the future. It appears now that a majority of observers believe that the cheetahs will not survive in Kuno National Park, the chosen site for the Cheetah Project.

The main area of Kuno (a valley) has a flowing river and hill ranges. During monsoon, the humidity is much higher, and the dense grass, thus, retains moisture even after the monsoon. This has led to concerns about the radio collars worn by the cheetahs, as they get wet in humid conditions, causing wounds from friction to get infected, ultimately resulting in septicemia and the recent deaths of some cheetahs.

Without the collars, monitoring the cheetahs becomes challenging and ensuring their safety seems impossible.

However, the problem is not confined just to the monsoon. During hot weather, it was noted that Kuno is excessively hot for cheetahs, leading to the deaths of three cheetah cubs. Even during the winter in Kuno, the cheetahs will still not escape moist conditions due to the heavy dew and guttation that occurs in the grasses. However, despite spending a winter in India, they have remained confined to enclosures. Living in the wild and in enclosures can be completely different experiences altogether.

In this project, some basic mistakes have been made. The main scientific advisors of the program have identified Kuno as a suitable location in both the Action plan and Suitability plan. It seems that the estimation of both the prey base and carrying capacity is overestimated. It is not clear why this was done, but it cannot be denied that there was no personal objective behind it or any pressure from some quarters. Anyway, now the state's forest officers are paying the price for it.

With elections to come in Madhya Pradesh this November, the current government may be hesitant to accept the failures of this project. Nevertheless, rectifying this situation won't be easy. Despite extensive monitoring and efforts, removing the highest-ranking officer might be seen as a show of the government's decisiveness, but it doesn't address the root of the problem.

The Supreme Court has once again suggested relocating the cheetahs to Rajasthan. However, this proposal may not align with the central government's political interests, as Rajasthan is governed by the Congress Party. Other individuals involved in various cheetah projects have also proposed relocating the cheetahs to the Mukundra Hills Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. They are aware that the park has a large enclosure, which could potentially restrict the movements of the cheetahs. Despite the apparent appeal of the enclosure, the potential problems with the site are not just political. Ecologically, the Mukundra Hills National Park (MHTR) may not be ideal for cheetahs. The MHTR has limited space, making it challenging to accommodate more than just two cheetahs. Additionally, a significant portion of the enclosure consists of hilly undulating terrain, which may not be suitable for the cheetahs.  If the MHTR is chosen as the relocation site for cheetahs, despite its limited suitability for these animals, it could potentially harm the ultimate goal of the park, which is to conserve and support the tiger population (hence becoming one constituent part of the then newly notified Mukundura Hills Tiger Reserve in 2013 ). It appears that some individuals might be supporting this proposal to absolve themselves of the growing issues related to the cheetah project site in Kuno National Park.

It appears that in the future, all the cheetahs might be kept in enclosures, with the government justifying it as a captive breeding population. They might claim that future generations of cheetahs could be released into the jungle, allowing them to pass their time there.  However, the overall prospects for the cheetah's fate in the wild in this country seem rather bleak; they can survive only in captivity.

Dharmendra Khandal has been a conservation biologist with Tiger Watch, a non-profit based in Ranthambore, for the past 20 years.

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