The Cheetah Project debacle: A cry for public accountability

Eight cheetahs dead in four months at Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh—is it because the wrong people are in charge? Or was the plan doomed from the start?

Were those hoods on the African cheetahs at their introduction to Kuno prophetic of their fate in India?
Were those hoods on the African cheetahs at their introduction to Kuno prophetic of their fate in India?

Dharmendra Khandal

The cheetah project initiated in Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh, has seen the death of eight cheetahs in the last four months.

The exact cause of death for several cheetahs could not be determined.

Instead, different reasons were provided. Initially, it was said that they died due to conflicts, and later deaths were attributed to illnesses. Foreign veterinarians have also continued to give contradictory statements.

Veterinarians alone cannot provide a solution to the problem.

The underlying issues are the erroneous selection of the project site and inadequate prey base.

A Cheetah Task Force committee was formed.

Its current composition includes retired forest officers and others who lack knowledge about cheetah ecology—due to the complete absence of cheetahs in India in recent memory—rendering them unsuitable for the task at hand.

All these individuals should step down from the task force. Instead, we should establish an advisory board consisting of both international and Indian experts to comprehensively review the entire project and assess its future prospects.

We must move away from one-sided opinions solely provided by retired or serving government officers. It is the prevailing mindset and attitude that are contributing to what is shaping up to be a significant crisis.

Opening up Project Cheetah to international comments and evaluations is essential as well.

However, it is also time to move away from relying on the advice of captive breeders in Namibia or veterinarians from managed private parks in South Africa.

Veterinarians, whether Indian or foreign, have a crucial role to play in the care of sick or injured animals. However, it is concerning that these so-called experts are providing ‘advice’ even before any issues arise.

Instead, we should seek guidance from experts in Kenya and Tanzania, who specialise in studying healthy wild cheetahs and their ecology. For instance, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), with its extensive 15-year study of cheetahs in the Serengeti, should be consulted for their expertise.

There is currently ambiguity, lack of transparency and an urgent need for discussion.

Perhaps there is no solution to this problem, but we are not learning from it either. Our scientists are distanced from it, receiving incomplete information.

The government should bring this program out of the category of a ‘top-secret’ programme and present it to the public. It should be actively encouraging the involvement of independent experts and prominent journalists to address key issues too.

It is time to make Project Cheetah accessible to the public, ensuring transparency and public participation.

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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