India's push to bring back cheetahs at risk as predators die

Indigenous Asian cheetahs have been officially extinct in India for over 70 years

Representative image of a cheetah (photo: DW)
Representative image of a cheetah (photo: DW)


African cheetah called "Suraj" was confirmed dead last Friday at India's Kuno National Park (KNP) in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. Park officials found the young male a few hours before he expired, noting he was in weak condition, with his neck infected with maggots and flies hovering over him.

It was the eight death of a cheetah in KNP within a space of four months. Just three days earlier, another male, four-year-old "Tejas" was reported dead with injuries on his neck.

Cheetah cubs bring short-lived joy to the park

Indigenous Asian cheetahs have been officially extinct in India for over 70 years. But the Indian government has been pursuing a large-scale, widely publicized Project Cheetah which aims to establish and expand a new feline population in Madhya Pradesh by importing the predators from Africa. Last September, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to the park on his 72nd birthday to personally welcome eight cheetahs which were flown from Namibia.

And while some experts warned that cheetahs may not have enough space to thrive in the KNP reserve, the project seemed to be more or less on track. In February, another 12 animals were imported from South Africa. In March, a female named Sasha died of kidney disease. But just a few days later, park officials had reasons to rejoice as four cubs were born after a successful mating of cheetahs imported from Namibia.

Their joy was soon cut short as three of the cubs died. Officials said they suffered dehydration due to high daytime temperatures. Then, even more animals died, with project leaders facing increasing pressure from the public to re-examine their strategy.

Ministry says animals to stay in Kuno park

Officials sought to downplay the significance of the deaths saying they were due to natural causes. Environment and forest minister Bhupender Yadav asserted that the cheetahs will remain in the KNP and said that the project will be successful.

"We are in touch with experts, including international experts," Yadav said in an interview to a news agency. "Our team will visit there. The cheetahs will not be relocated and will remain in Kuno only."

The ministry also said projects of this magnitude are bound to go through ups and downs, and dismissed rumors about harmful effects of radio tags that the animals were equipped with.

"Reports in the media attributing these cheetah deaths to other reasons including their radio collars are not based on any scientific evidence but are speculation and hearsay," officials said.

Most secretive wildlife project 'in the history of the world'

However, experts and wildlife conservationists are skeptical. Many of them believe the project is impractical and based on poor science, and they worry that the cheetah would not be able to survive in the long run.

"It is important to keep in mind that all the eight deaths have taken place in captivity under the control of the management team," Ravi Chellam, a wildlife biologist and CEO of Metastring Foundation and Coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative told DW.

"To me all of these indicates poor planning and inadequate preparations," he added.

Chellam, who has studied the issue closely, pointed out that India needs to first focus on good quality habitat for the animals. He says officials should prepare at least 4,000 square kilometers (nearly a million acres) before bringing more cheetahs from Africa.

"It is crucial that good quality science is incorporated into the planning, implementation, and monitoring of the cheetah project. Lessons have to be learnt from the implementation experience and the project needs to be revised," he added, calling for more transparency.

Noted naturalist and conservationist Valmik Thapar also said the project showed poor management and negligence and a lack of understanding of the animal.

"This reintroduction plan has become about captive cheetahs. Even those are not surviving," he warned. Thapar also criticized the government for keeping its plans secret and not giving access to independent journalists or experts.

"I do not think there has ever been such a secret wildlife project in the history of the world," Thapar told DW.

Should cheetahs be split into more locations?

For many experts, the biggest headache is still the lack of space in Madhya Pradesh's KNP. They argue cheetahs need more widely spread areas, as a single of the predatory cats has a range of 100 square kilometres.

Yadvendradev Vikramsinh Jhala, a conservationist and former dean at the Wildlife Institute of India pointed out that cheetahs need to be established in more sites across India as soon as possible, requiring resources for restoring ecosystems to sustain a large carnivore.

"The current allocations from the government are ad-hoc and meagre and unable to sustain the project for the long haul," Jhala told DW.

He believes that the animals should have been split between two sites — one population as a breeding nucleus within a large enclosed system available in Rajasthan's Mukundara Tiger Reserve and the other as free ranging in KNP.

Predators threatened by poor sperm quality

However, Pradnya Giradkar, the country's first cheetah conservation specialist said cheetahs had high mortality rates even in Africa and are considered "vulnerable species."

"As a result of lower genetic diversity, cheetahs have poor sperm quality and are difficult to adapt to changes in environment. Research done by well-known geneticists, Stephen O'Brien and Laurie Marker shows that mortality of cheetah cubs is more than 70% in captivity. It will be definitely reduced when cheetahs [are] released in their free range," Giradkar told DW.

"Scientific studies on the ecological interaction between habitat composition, habitat quality and demography of cheetahs and their prey [are] required to maintain viability. Also, there is a need to raise conservation awareness and capacity-building programs to mitigate and prevent cheetah-human conflict," said Giradkar.

Science vs 'political prestige'

India's cheetah relocation program is perhaps among the most ambitious of its kind in the world. Officials hope to bring in five to 10 animals every year over the next decade until a self-sustaining population of about 35 is established.

Following the death of two cheetahs in three days, an expert advisory committee has recommended that all the animals undergo a complete physical medical review.

This will involve recalling even the animals which have been released into the wild and investigating if the radio-collars on their necks may be indirectly causing infections.

"The expert group must surely be examining what is going wrong repeatedly. All that can be hoped for is that conservation science prevails over political prestige," Jairam Ramesh, former environment minister, told DW.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

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