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What’s happening with the cheetahs?

Gaps in pre-project planning, different climate and politics between states hamper India’s biggest big cat translocation project

Uday, a six-year-old cheetah, was healthy when he was released in quarantine in the Kuno National Park (KNP) in Madhya Pradesh (MP) in February. Mandatory medical tests conducted in South Africa before he was flown to India found him fit without any sign of any illness. He weighed a healthy 55 kg.

Just two months later Uday could barely walk.

CCTV footage captured on April 23 showed a feeble Uday barely walking a few metres before collapsing inside his enclosure in KNP.

Uday was pale and weak and weighed just about 43 kg when he was found dead soon after: It meant the big cat did not eat anything for at least three days before dying, experts said.

Uday died due to “cardiopulmonary failure” caused by a “localised area of brain haemorrhage”, the environment ministry said in a statement.

What caused the brain haemorrhage was not officially explained by the ministry or the state forest department.

Uday was the second cheetah to die after Sasha who died because of renal failure on March 27, 2023, the ministry said, adding that she had developed a kidney ailment (high keratin level) when she was in Namibia, her original home.

The Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), however, denied the ministry claim, saying Sasha was “healthy” before she was translocated to India.

Six-year-old Uday’s collapse inside the six square km enclosure, five days after being released from quarantine, was the first sign that the cheetahs may be finding it difficult to adapt to a different ecology and climate.

The cheetahs, however, continued to die.

On May 9, a female cheetah Daksha died during a mating attempt, which, however, is not unusual in the wild even in Africa, the biggest home of cheetahs in the world.

She died during a “violent encounter” with a coalition of two male cheetahs, who were released into her enclosure on April 30.

“Prima facie, the wounds found on the female cheetah Daksha seem to have been caused by a violent interaction with the male, possibly during mating,” an MP forest department statement said.

Even as a debate behind the reasons for these deaths raged among forest and government officials and ecologists, the Kuno weather began to change and started taking its toll on the animals.

In May, three of the four cubs born to Siyaya from Namibia died due to dehydration as temperatures in Kuno touched 45 degrees Celsius.

A ministry statement said the three cubs died due to dehydration and because they were rejected by their mother.

Then came the monsoon, lowering high summer temperatures but forcing the cheetahs to live in high humidity levels, something which they had not experienced before.

The rainfall in Kuno in the first week of July was almost double the normal for the period, India Meteorological Department (IMD) scientist Harvendra Singh, said, adding that heavy rains raised humidity level up to 92 %, the highest in the past few years.

Tejas, 3 and Suraj, 6, died on July 11 and July 14 respectively due to “traumatic shock” because of septicaemia, said cheetah steering committee chairperson Rajesh Gopal, terming the deaths as “highly unusual.”

The cubs caught the infection from the 400-gm radio collars around their necks, which were continuously wet because of the rains.

The infection was so severe that maggots infested Suraj’s body from its neck all the way to the tail, which also indicated that the infection had spread over a period of time.

“The infection around the radio collars was due to high humidity,” an MP forest department official had said at the time of the deaths of the two cheetahs.

The Cheetah translocation project

Cheetahs went extinct in India by the early 1950s.

Twenty cheetahs – 8 from Namibia and 12 from South Africa – were translocated to India on September 17, 2022, as part of the “Cheetah Translocation Project” (CTP).

The cheetahs released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi were first put in a quarantine area and then released into the six sq km enclosure to adapt to Kuno’s ecological and climate conditions. Of the 20, 11 were finally released into the wild in different phases.

The unexpected deaths of all the cheetahs in the enclosure – which experts said should not have occurred – have brought the spotlight back to India’s most ambitious big cat conservation project.

Independent experts have found fault with the implementation of the project and frequent changes in the project monitoring team.

Rajesh Gopal is the third head of the project monitoring team since September 2022, when the first cheetahs were brought to India. None of the big cat experts who were part of the original team and brought the cheetahs to India are part of the monitoring team now.

National Tiger Conservation Authority member Secretary, S P Yadav, Y V Jhala, former head of cheetah task force, and Gopal did not respond to questions from HT on the deaths and on the problems with the project.

“Please excuse me, there is a lot of negativity around the project,” said a senior ministry official, when his comments were sought. Neither did the environment ministry spokesperson respond to HT questions.

However, the ministry in a written reply in Parliament during the 2023 monsoon session said it was too early to evaluate the success and failure of the project. It claimed 50% of cheetah deaths were expected in the project in the first year before the population stabilised.

When asked about the project and the problems, the MP chief wildlife warden Aseem Shrivastava said: “I have just joined and I’m here to fix things. I will work according to guidelines and I can’t comment on other things as I need to first have an idea about it.”

Weather

What really alarmed wildlife experts was the death of the three cubs in May and the two cheetahs in July even though the weather pattern – different in India from the cheetahs’ original habitats – was discussed in the cheetah action plan.

The ideal habitats for cheetahs are grasslands, scrubs and open forest systems, semi-arid environments, low human impact areas, and temperatures that tend to be hotter than cooler.

The pre-project action plan had said Kuno was best suited for the project.

A section in the action plan on eco-climatic zone for cheetahs in India, said: “Response curve for minimum temperature of the coldest month shows that areas having low temperature (not below 2° Celsius) are not suitable. Cheetah habitat suitability was limited to areas with maximum temperature between 23° to 40° Celsius in the warmest months and mostly in semi-arid (dry) regions.”

The action plan said that analysis of the weather in Kuno showed a “high probability of cheetah habitat suitability”.

Experts, however, disagree.

“Peak summer temperatures in Kuno regularly exceed 40 degrees Celsius. That being the case, it is not clear how Kuno was chosen when their own analysis indicates that 23 to 40 degrees Celsius is the most suitable temperature range for cheetahs,” said Ravi Chellam, chief executive officer, Metastring Foundation & Coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative, who has extensively worked on big cats in India.

Experts said the action plan failed to mention about high rainfall in recent years even though the long-term average of rainfall in the Sheopur district of Madhya Pradesh, where Kuno falls, is 162 mm for the monsoon season.

A senior official associated with the cheetah project said the action plan prepared by experts, who are now not part of the project, had evaluated the possibility of extreme weather conditions because of climate change and local weather conditions.

“But (they) could not anticipate how the animals will react to it and its possible medical implications. There was no scientific study to fall back on as such as project has never been undertaken,” the official said.

Skin infection

As the weather was getting hotter, the first signs of what was in store were visible in May itself. The state forest department on May 15 wrote to the national tiger conservation authority (NTCA) on action to be taken on “skin abrasions” caused due to radio collars.

Officials said a detailed guideline on how to treat skin ailments was issued on July 17 after the death of Suraj and Tejas. The steering committee also decided to recapture all cheetahs in the wild and to medically re-evaluate them.

Eight of the 11 cheetahs in the wild were subsequently recaptured. After they were recaptured, the medical team found skin infections in Gaurav, Shaurya and Pawan, who had earlier travelled up to 200 kms to reach the Uttar Pradesh border.

Vincent van der Merwe, manager of Cheetah Metapopulation Project on July 15 said, “The extremely wet conditions are causing the collars to cause infection, which was not anticipated.”

The radio collars on the remaining cheetahs have been removed for now, Gopal said.

Learnings

Key learnings have been picked up from the 10-month-old project, officials monitoring it said.

An official associated with the project said that except for Sasha, the cheetahs that died were from South Africa and these deaths took place in the six square km enclosure.

Arjun Gopalaswamy, founder and chief scientist of Carnassials Global, a Bengaluru-based ecological firm said no cheetah should have died inside the enclosure.

He said the action plan overlooked key research on cheetah behaviour and ecology, making the strategy inherently prone to high mortalities.

Vincent van der Merwe, quoted earlier, said on July 11: “In Africa, we do not employ this phased release approach for wild cheetah reintroduction/release. Our cheetahs do a short one-month quarantine in a small 40m*40m boma (the enclosure for the cheetahs), and then they are released into free-ranging conditions. The phased manner release was done with good intentions but needs to be reviewed,” he said.

That is not all. There is also a question mark on whether in the future cheetahs translocated from other countries should be captive-bred or from the wild.

This issue has arisen because most of the South African cheetahs, which died were wild, indicating that they faced problems in adjusting to long captivity.

The cheetahs in South Africa spent almost nine months in quarantine before they were sent to India. Official records show that they were captured in the months of June and July in 2022 to be translocated to India in August.

However, prolonged bilateral talks between India and South Africa led to delays in translocation.

South African veterinarian, Adrian Tordiffe, said they were discussing whether or not it will be better to identify captive cheetahs in future as they would be less stressed by the presence of people and easier to monitor.

“We selected wild cheetahs from South Africa with the thinking that they would be more likely to avoid human settlements in India. Perhaps that was a mistake and more habituated tame cheetahs might still be fine,” he said.

A new home

According to a letter published in Conservation Science and Practice in April 2023, the cheetah carrying capacity of Kuno was estimated to be “21 individuals” based on “prey density” which comes to three individuals per 100 square kms.

“Such high cheetah densities have not been recorded for other free-ranging African cheetah population roaming in unfenced areas, which typically occur less than 1 individual per 100 square km,” the letter by Bettina Wachter of department of evolutionary zoology at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany said.

The letter echoes experts from South Africa and Namibia who have asked for a second home for cheetahs in India. The risk assessment and management plan prepared by South African experts had mentioned Mukundra Hills in the Congress-ruled Rajasthan as a possible second home for cheetahs.

However, the MP government started preparing the much warmer Gandhi Sagar wildlife sanctuary in the southern part of the state as a second home for them in April this year.

The officials admitted that at the earliest, Gandhi Sagar will be ready to house cheetahs by early next year whereas Mukundra, which has a big quarantine facility, can be readied in a month.

A senior official in MP forest department said they were keen to shift cheetahs to another location after their monitoring became a herculean task because one of the cheetahs, Pawan, started travelling long distances, forcing the department to tranquilise him twice to bring him back to Kuno.

“We clearly told the NTCA that we would not be able to physically monitor the movement of so many cheetahs and sought permission to shift them to another location,” the official said, adding that they were not averse to relocating the cheetahs to Mukundhra Hills.

When Gopal was appointed as chairman of the steering committee it was decided that cheetahs will be allowed to explore their territories outside Kuno and will not be recaptured. They were, however, recaptured because of skin abrasions in July.

Weighing into the debate, union environment minister Bhupendra Yadav, who visited KNP on June 6, said Kuno had enough space and no cheetahs will be relocated.

Yadav repeated his statement on July 15.

“We are in touch with experts including international experts. Our team will visit there. The cheetahs will not be relocated from Kuno.”

A Congress leader in Rajasthan, Bharat Singh, former head of the state wildlife board, said the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Central government has deliberately prevented cheetahs from coming to Mukundra Hills as it does not want to share credit.

However, a Rajasthan forest department official said if Mukundra is proposed as a second home, they will “actively consider” it and prepare the wildlife sanctuary for them.

The issue is likely to be discussed in the Supreme Court as a bench of justices BR Gavai, JB Pardiwala, and Prashant Kumar Mishra on July 20 asked the Centre it was making shifting of cheetahs to another location a “prestige issue” and why more homes for them have not been created.

“Instead of having them (cheetahs) in one place, why cannot you create one or more habitats for them, irrespective of whatever state or whatever government they are under,” said the bench, commenting that 40% of the deaths in a year do not reflect a good picture. The Centre has to respond to SC questions by July 28.

All this leads to the bigger question of whether Kuno, which was once being planned as the second home for lions from Gir in Gujarat, was the right choice for the introduction of African cheetahs in the first place.

Chellam said: “Unless we have the required space, something in excess of 4,000 square km, we should not be undertaking such costly projects which have very little chance of succeeding given the foundational flaws on which they are based.”

“With nearly a year gone by since the first batch of cheetahs arrived from Namibia, there is still no sign of the cheetahs establishing themselves in the wild. On the contrary, all the released cheetahs are being captured and are going to be held captive at least for the next few months. With the cheetahs finding it difficult just to survive, where is the question of the cheetahs helping us achieve the larger conservation goals,” he said.

M K Ranjitsinh, who headed the Supreme Court-appointed panel to select the cheetah translocation site, said there was no problem with the selection of KNP.

“Kuno is the best place to bring back cheetahs to the wild. It matched all conditions for suitable translocation. Once the cheetahs came, the experts’ (who selected the site) opinions were not heard by the steering committee. It is still not late to save the project. Voice of experts needs to be heard,” he said.

The SC is yet to decide on the Centre’s request to disband the expert panel headed by Ranjitsinh.

With all the cheetahs back in the enclosure, it means the project will have to be started afresh. The government will take at least a few months to release the cheetahs back into the wild again even though some of them such as Pawan and Aasha had gone as far as 150-200 km from Kuno and were exploring new territory.

“So, in effect, the project has not yet really begun and many cheetahs have (already) been lost,” said Arjun Gopalaswamy, founder and chief scientist at Carnassials Global.

There is still hope for the prestigious project with 15 adult cheetahs still alive and 11 of them having explored their territory in the wild.

A science-based approach, which takes into account ecological-climatic conditions and willingness to shift some cheetahs to a new home could give the project new life.

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