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Ecostani | Despite concerns, the Cheetah project is worth pursuing

Before its 75th Independence Day, India will have brought back cheetahs to semi-wild conditions in Madhya Pradesh, where cheetah roamed more than 100 years ago.

It will surely be a moment of rejoice but one should remember that these animals may be more of a tourist attraction than add ecological value. It is the world’s first species re-introduction program and comes at the time when less than 7,000 cheetahs are remaining in the world with their population on decline.

Last Wednesday, India and Namibia signed a historic memorandum of understanding (MoU) on translocation of cheetahs to India for a period of 5 years, which can be renewed for successive 5-year periods, unless either party terminates the agreement. Namibia has promised to provide India eight cheetahs in two batches of four each.

The agreement speaks about biodiversity conservation with specific focus on restoration of the cheetah in its former range areas; sharing expertise and capacities for cheetah conservation in the two countries, wildlife conservation and sustainable biodiversity utilization and mechanisms of livelihood generation for local communities living in wildlife habitats.

On the face of it, the agreement looks good but wildlife experts point out that the provision on sustainable conservation of biodiversity actually means supporting Namibia at the meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Specials of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) to allow trade of wildlife and its body parts. Namibia and several other African countries, which have a huge stockpile of wildlife body parts, have been trying for long to negotiate the trade at CITES, the international wildlife regulator, for their sale in high demand western and West Asian countries.

“This is a historical event. After a 75-year gap we will see cheetahs back in India. This will be the first inter-continental wild to wild transfer of cheetahs in the world. Some concerns regarding the agreement were there but those have been resolved now. Negotiations on modalities of translocation are underway. Initially, we may get 8 cheetahs by August,” said SP Yadav, head of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the national big cat regulatory body.

The Cheetah Project

The Supreme Court appointed panel had surveyed 10 sites between 2010 and 2012 to select where the cheetah could be introduced. Based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines for reintroductions that consider species viability according to demography, genetics and socio-economics of conflict and livelihoods, Kuno Palpur National Park in Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh was considered ready for receiving the cheetah . This was because there had already been a lot of investments in this protected area for introducing Asiatic lions from Gir National Park in Gujarat.

The current carrying capacity for Kuno (748 sq km) is a maximum of 21 cheetahs and it could be enhanced for another 20 by including the remaining part of the Kuno Wildlife Division (1,280 sq km) through prey restoration, the ministry said. It has also provided R10 crore for the project and is sourcing money from private funders. The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) with national and international cheetah experts is providing technical and knowledge support, the ministry said.

According to an environment ministry report on Cheetah Translocation Project, the aim of bringing cheetahs to India is to establish a viable cheetah meta-population in India that allows the cheetah to perform its functional role as a top predator and provide space for the expansion of the cheetah within its historical range.

According to a Ravi Chellam, biodiversity expert and CEO, Metastring Foundation & Coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative, in March 2022, published a report saying that range of cheetahs extended from Punjab in north to Bihar in the east to Gujarat and Rajasthan in the west and till Western Ghats in south. The last cheetah spotted in India was in Western Ghats and northern Bihar in 1967. Madhya Pradesh where the cheetahs are being brought lost their last this big cat in 1912 and 1932, as per the study.

“There are authentic reports of their occurrence from as far north as Punjab to the Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu. The cheetah’s habitat was also diverse, favoring the more open habitats, scrub forest, dry grasslands, savannas and other arid and semi-arid open habitats,” he said in the report.

The consistent and widespread capture of cheetahs from the wild over centuries, its reduced levels of genetic heterogeneity due to a historical genetic bottleneck resulting in reduced fecundity and high infant mortality in the wild, its inability to breed in captivity, “sport” hunting and bounty killings are the major reasons for the extinction of the Asiatic cheetah in India, Chellam had said.

On the ministry statement that it wants cheetah to “perform its functional role as a top predator”, Chellam said the role is being done by Asiatic lion and leopards in the country. Moreover, data from African countries show that farm bred cheetahs (which India is getting) are very vulnerable to leopard. In Kuno, where they would be habituated for wild, top predator is leopards with officials estimate their number to be more than 50.

The translocation process

The ministry said cheetahs from Namibia will be first to arrive by August 15 and the animals have been identified there.

According to a University of Pretoria statement, 12 animals are being prepared in South Africa for their new home in Madhya Pradesh. Of them, at least six are expected to be in Kuno by the end of 2022, which would by then have four cheetahs from Namibia.

The ministry has made Kuno National Park management responsible for monitoring and protection of cheetahs with the help of Wildlife Institute scientists and international experts from South Africa and Namibia. For people living in and around Kuno, an awareness campaign is underway with a local mascot named Chintu Cheetah, ministry said.

Cheetahs brought in from Namibia would be soft released (providing wild animals with a gradual transition to the wild during translocation) into a 10 sq km enclosure in Kuno to reduce their tendency to disperse long distances from their site of release, officials said, adding they would be housed in the predator proof fenced enclosures.

Initially, male and female cheetahs would be kept separately in a five square kilometer enclosure but adjoining compartments and will be allowed to co-habit as and when indications would be there. The location of the enclosure will be such that the cheetahs can sense the presence of prey and predators before release.

A new study by a United Nations affiliated global wildlife regulator in July 2022 said that cheetahs are “notoriously difficult to breed in captivity” based on long-time research on cheetah breeding in captive facilities in Africa. “Cheetahs are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity – for example, North American cheetahs have excellent genetic variation as well as housing and veterinary care, yet only 23 out of 111 females have had offspring,” the study said.

The concerns

Experts point out that apart from breeding in captivity concerns, there are also questions about whether Kuno, a Vindhya forest with limited grassland, is a perfect habitat for cheetah, which like vast open spaces for their biological and physical needs. Studies in Africa have shown that female cheetah are solitary and roam vast distances whereas male defends smaller territories and mate when female pass through, creating breeding issues.

Even the national action plan for cheetah translocation released in January 2022 hinted at the animal’s low reproduction issues saying Kuno has current capacity to sustain 21 cheetahs in 15 years and 36 after 30-40 years.

Wildlife experts also point out to the presence of leopards in Kuno which would make release of the animals in the wild difficult. Studies have shown that in Africa, the leopards have hunted down cheetah as prey, and similar fears are being expressed for Kuno also, which has about 50 leopards in and around the core area, where cheetahs will be housed.

Another pivotal issue is whether a cheetah living in an enclosure and being fed with a prey will be able to hunt in the wild on its own. In the past decade or so, not even a single wild big cat such as tiger and lion treated or bred in enclosure have been able to return to life in wild. Sundari, the tigress which returned from Satkosia in Odisha after failed relocation attempt, was finally kept captive for life in Bhopal Zoo. Close to 30 lions kept in an enclosure after CDV outbreak in Gir National Park would go to different zoos in the country.

Anish Andheria, President of Wildlife Conservation Trust, however, rebuffed some concerns. “In Africa, cheetahs live alongside other cats like lions and leopards. Cheetah is an intermediate size cat. Male tigers do migrate to Kuno from Ranthambore off and on, but they haven’t bred due to the absence of tigresses. So, conflict with tigers is not a major concern. We will have to see how cheetahs cope with leopards,” he said.

He also pointed out cheetahs survived in wooded habitats in Africa also and therefore, forest of Kuno should not be a major concern. “I agree it is not the best habitat for cheetahs. I think the ministry should start exploring other larger, more open habitats in Gujarat and Rajasthan and prepare them for cheetah introduction in 10 years” he said.

More than 117 years after the project to rehabilitate lions from Africa failed, the government has readied an enclosure for cheetahs in the dry deciduous forest landscape of Kuno Palpur. In 1905, 10 lions were brought from Africa and of them, seven reached, who were killed by local villagers. Kuno had lost all his lions till 1872 and cheetahs by early 1920s. Getting back cheetah is a milestone in India’s wildlife management history that started in 1973 with declaration of first tiger reserve. The Cheetah project is an experiment worth pursuing to improve forest and wildlife management. Whether it succeeds or fails, the future will tell.

The views expressed are personal


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