Questions arise about Project Cheetah as three cheetahs die in 45 days
Representational Image

Chaos erupted in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park, about 345 kilometres from the state capital Bhopal, at 11.45 am on May 9. The monitoring team discovered an injured female cheetah in its enclosure. The team swiftly initiated treatment, but the cheetah succumbed to its injuries within an hour. Daksha, the female cheetah, was one of the 12 big cats brought in from South Africa in February 2023.

  • As part of Project Cheetah, aimed at reintroducing cheetahs in India, 20 cheetahs were brought from Namibia and South Africa.
  • Over the eight months since the first set of cheetahs were brought in, one Namibian and two South African cheetahs have died, all within a span of 45 days, due to different reasons. There are also reports of two Namibian cheetahs straying out of the Kuno forest, resulting in repeated rescues by the forest department.
  • Some wildlife researchers and experts raise questions about the expanse of Kuno, the stress levels of the cheetahs after relocation and quarantine, while others recommend a review of the project before more cheetahs are imported.

The Park officials attributed Daksha’s death to an attack by a coalition of two male cheetahs – Vayu and Agni, also known as the ‘White Walkers’.

J.S. Chauhan, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, stated, “On May 9, 2023, at quarter to eleven, Daksha was found in an injured state by the monitoring team. Veterinarians on the spot administered treatment to her. The wounds found on the body of the female cheetah Daksha, prima facie, appear to be (from a) violent interaction with the males, possibly during an attempt of mating.”

Twenty cheetahs have been translocated to Kuno National Park (KNP) in September 2022 and February 2023 from southern Africa, as part of Project Cheetah, to re-establish the species within its historical range in India. Daksha is the third of the cheetahs, introduced under the project, to die in the national park. In the eight months of Project Cheetah, three cheetahs have died in the span of 45 days.

During a meeting in Kuno on April 30, wildlife experts decided to introduce Daksha to two male cheetahs. Amit Mallick, Inspector General of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, Qamar Qureshi of Wildlife Institute of India, and Professor Adrian Tordif and Vincent Van der Merwe of the Cheetah Metapopulation Initiative, South Africa, were present in this meeting.

Before this, in March 2023, a female Namibian cheetah Siyaya gave birth to four cubs. Given the gestation period of 90 days in cheetahs, it is confirmed that Siyaya conceived after she arrived at Kuno.

Van der Merwe, the South African cheetah expert and manager of the Cheetah Metapopulation Initiative, was familiar with the behaviour of the two cheetahs – Vayu and Agni. In conversation with Mongabay-India he said, “The Phinda Adult Male Coalition consisting of Vayu and Agni, also known as the ‘White Walkers’, had a violent interaction with the Phinda Adult Female, Daksha. Cheetahs were introduced into the enclosure earlier, which is why four cubs were born in Kuno. Regrettably, Daksha lost her life in this incident.”

He added, “It is not unusual for male cheetahs to exhibit aggressive behaviour towards each other and the females. Violent interactions among cheetahs were responsible for around 8% of cheetah mortality in the Southern African metapopulation.”

This image, captured from a video, showcases cheetahs at Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa engaging in a similar attack on a female. Image by Vincent van der Merwe/The Metapopulation Initiative
This image, captured from a video, showcases cheetahs at Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa engaging in a similar attack on a female. Photo by Vincent van der Merwe/The Metapopulation Initiative.

In the last two months, the South African male cheetah Uday and the Namibian female cheetah Sasha also died in Kuno National Park.

According to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Sasha died on March 27 due to chronic renal insufficiency and Uday developed acute neuromuscular symptoms shortly after being released into a larger acclimatisation camp. Despite symptomatic treatment, Uday died on the April 23, and the postmortem examination revealed possible haemorrhage in his brain, while his other organs appeared relatively normal.

Higher mortality anticipated 

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the nodal body in-charge of the project, plans to release three South African cheetahs (from the 12 imported in February) into the wild, within the next two months. The remaining seven cheetahs will be kept in a larger enclosure.

According to the Metapopulation Initiative, many of the released cheetahs will move outside the boundaries of Kuno National Park and may undergo short-term stress during the recapture process.

Van der Merwe points out that cheetahs naturally have a high mortality rate. “We’ve co-ordinated 32 reintroductions into various protected areas across Africa, and we typically lose 41% of founder cheetahs in the first-year post-release,” he explained while adding that the toughest test is yet to come.

“Higher mortality rates lie ahead when the cats are released into free-ranging conditions in India. We anticipate that only 10 of the original 20 cheetahs introduced here will be alive by next April,” he told Mongabay-India.

Do the big cats have adequate space at Kuno?  

Wildlife experts say that African cheetahs are generally nomadic and prefer to make long journeys when released from their enclosures. This behaviour is also observed among the cheetahs brought to India. Asha and Pavan (previously called Oban), the Namibian cheetahs, were released into the wild in March and after that they strayed out of the national park multiple times. Asha was found in Kuno’s Vijaypur range in the last two weeks and Pavan was recaptured from the Uttar Pradesh border between Shivpuri and Jhansi.

These incidents have led to international wildlife experts raising questions about the expanse of Kuno National Park and the number of cheetahs lodged there. Scientists from Berlin-based Leibniz-Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW)’s Cheetah Research Project in Namibia, argue that in southern Africa, cheetahs live in widely spread areas, and a single cheetah has a range of 100 square kilometres.

Entrance gate of Kuno Palpur National park. the 748 sq. km KNP devoid of human settlements forms part of the Sheopur-Shivpuri deciduous open forest landscape and is estimated to have a capacity to sustain 21 cheetahs. Photo by Manish Chandra Mishra/Mongabay
Entrance gate of Kuno Palpur National park. The park spread over 748 square kilometres is devoid of human settlements and forms a part of the Sheopur-Shivpuri deciduous open forest landscape. Photo by Manish Chandra Mishra/Mongabay.

In a paper published in Conservation Science and Practice in April 2023, researchers observed that because of Kuno National Park’s small area, the cheetahs may stray far beyond the park’s boundaries. The Kuno National Park is spread over an area of about 748 square kilometres and is open from all sides.

Bettina Wachter, lead author of the research paper, told Mongabay-India, “We expected such large movements of cheetahs during their exploration phase, which might last for several months. But even after this period, we expect the males to distribute themselves regularly and establish territories 20-23 kilometres from each other.”

“Cheetahs have a unique socio-spatial system with territorial males distributed in a regular pattern, floaters which roam over large areas encompassing territories, and females roaming between the territories,” Wachter added.

Van der Merwe added that the natural behaviours of the cheetah must be encouraged. “Cheetahs display extensive exploratory movements during the initial six-month period post-release. Let them explore. They must not be relentlessly followed, darted and brought back. Let this natural behaviour unfold. Wild cheetahs do not present a threat to humans. Some livestock losses may be incurred, but compensation can be paid for this,” he added.

Wild animals though, do not recognise administrative boundaries. Wildlife biologist and conservation scientist Ravi Chellam, on the behaviour of wild animals, said, “Animals do not stray. Their ecological and behavioural needs dictate the movement.” Chellam is the CEO, Metastring Foundation and Coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative, Bengaluru.

He also pointed out that wild animals work with ecological limits and risk perception. Cheetahs are far-ranging animals in low densities, particularly males, and they do not need roads, signboards, or traffic signals to navigate their habitats. “Instead of trying to prevent them from ‘straying’, which only exacerbates the problems, the focus should be on providing suitable habitats for cheetahs to establish territories and settle in home ranges,” he remarked.

Stress levels in cheetahs

After the female cheetah Siyaya gave birth to four cubs earlier in February, it was believed that some cheetahs are slowly coming out of stress. However, some experts argue that it may not be the case.

On the issue of stress in cheetahs, Wachter said, “A high-stress level, does not prevent females from breeding. We showed in our earlier studies that the relevant factor for breeding cheetahs is the age of the female at her first gestation.”

Van der Merwe added, “The South African government took seven months to approve the relocation of 12 South African cheetahs to India. During this time, the cheetahs lost considerable fitness, condition, and vigilance. After which, the Indian government imposed another two months of quarantine on the 12 South African cheetahs when they arrived in India. One cannot expect wild cheetahs to flourish if you take them from wild, natural, free-ranging conditions and throw them into cages for nine months (8% of their lives).”

Is Project Cheetah on the right track?

Project Cheetah has been mired in controversy since its inception. Asiatic cheetahs were found in India before their extinction, but African cheetahs have been introduced under the project for the first time in the country. 

In March 2023, a female Namibian cheetah Siyaya gave birth to four cubs. Image- Kuno National Park
In March 2023, a female Namibian cheetah Siyaya gave birth to four cubs. Photo from Kuno National Park.

Cheetah experts also raised their concerns about the project. A few weeks after introducing the cheetah into India, Yadvendradev Jhala, a professor and the lead scientist of the project and the scientist who played a crucial role in bringing cheetahs to India, was not included in the Cheetah Task Force.

Mongabay-India tried to get in touch with Professor Jhala to understand the reason behind this move, but has not received any response at the time of publishing this story. However Van der Merwe contested the move and opined that professor Jhala “must be reinstated as lead scientist on the project immediately.”

He also listed some of the other challenges related to the project. “Cultural beliefs in India prohibit shooting animals for feeding cheetahs in bomas (enclosures). For this reason, the cheetahs were being fed water buffalo and goats for two months, which cannot be considered natural prey for cheetahs.”

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“Cheetahs do best when they feed on freshly caught small to medium-sized prey animals, with access to the full carcass including all the preferred organs that contain essential nutrients required to ensure physiological functionality,” Van der Merwe added.

Chellam however, has been vocal about the project since the beginning and has warned against the ‘hasty’ introduction of cheetahs into India and in conversation with Mongabay-India, urged an ‘independent review of the Action Plan and implementation’ before more cheetahs are imported.

This article is written by Manish Chandra Mishra  and republished from Mongabay

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