As I write this article, it is nearly a year since eight African cheetahs from Namibia landed in India and were released into quarantine enclosures at Kuno National Park (748 sq km), Madhya Pradesh, on September 17, 2022. The introduction of African cheetahs was heralded as a major conservation initiative, which set global records. For instance, it was announced with much fanfare that this was the first intercontinental movement of large cats. The eight Namibian cheetahs were joined by 12 cheetahs from South Africa in mid-February 2023. As the first anniversary of the arrival of the Namibian cheetahs approaches, it is time to review the project’s current status using ecological knowledge of free-ranging wild cheetahs and the key elements outlined in the “Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India”.
The overall stated goal for this project is to establish a viable cheetah metapopulation in India that allows the cheetah to perform its functional role as a top predator and provides space for the expansion of the cheetah within its historical range, thereby contributing to its global conservation efforts.
The current status is a far cry from the claims made in the Cheetah Action Plan that cheetahs would act as a flagship to evoke a greater focus on the predicament of the much abused dry-open forest/savanna ecosystems and the need to restore and manage them, as well as to take action to conserve endangered species found in these habitats, some of which are on the brink of extinction. Amongst these are the caracal, the Indian wolf, and three endangered species of the bustard family—the Houbara, the critically endangered Lesser Florican,and the Great Indian Bustard. At present, it is difficult to see how the introduction of African cheetahs will have any impact on the conservation of open natural ecosystems in India or contribute to the conservation of critically endangered species or how the cats themselves will be able to effectively perform their functional role as a top predator, which are all goals of the project.
In this context, it is relevant to note that introduction of African cheetahs is not even mentioned in our National Wildlife Action Plan 2017-2031, while conservation action for endangered species like the Great Indian Bustard and the Asiatic lion are priority projects.
A fundamental requirement
It should have been a fundamental requirement for the project authorities to rigorously and comprehensively assess the suitability of the sites where the cheetahs would potentially be introduced. They should have also ensured that the sites were ready in all respects before any cheetahs were brought in. Detailed plans for ecologically restoring and managing all the potential introduction sites needed to have been prepared and implemented before the cheetahs arrived. By failing to do this, we have unfortunately put the cart before the horse. This is reflected in how we are now scrambling to get Madhya Pradesh’s Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary ready by the end of 2023 to play host to additional cheetahs from South Africa, which are expected to arrive in early 2024. It is also reported that work has commenced at Madhya Pradesh’s Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary to prepare it for cheetahs.
Logically, the restoration of grasslands and other open natural ecosystems in India should have paved the way for the introduction of the cheetahs and not the other way round.
In the Cheetah Action Plan, the primary aim for Kuno National Park (KNP) is to establish a free-ranging population of cheetahs in and around KNP. Further, this population in KNP is to be managed as a metapopulation with another two to three established populations of cheetahs in India, with occasional “immigrants” brought in from Africa, as and when needed.
Is KNP suitable or unsuitable?
The suitability of KNP for introducing cheetahs is rated highly in the Cheetah Action Plan. It is estimated that KNP has the carrying capacity to sustain 21 cheetahs and once a cheetah population is established within KNP, dispersing cats would colonise the landscape, which can potentially hold up to 36 individuals. Hence, it was very surprising to hear the cheetah project scientists and officials stating earlier in 2023 that KNP is not fully suitable to host a viable population of cheetahs.
The above-mentioned calculation of KNP’s cheetah carrying capacity is flawed as the cheetah’s socio-spatial system has not been considered while determining this. The notion that increasing the density of prey animals in KNP will result in the cheetahs moving closer together and living in smaller home ranges is not based on data. Free-ranging cheetahs exist in densities of approximately one to two per 100 sq km. Trying to force cheetahs to live closer together, in unnaturally high densities, is most likely only possible when cheetahs and their prey are in fenced areas and strictly managed. In any case, fenced reserves are not part of India’s conservation philosophy and approach.
- As the first anniversary of the arrival of the Namibian cheetahs approaches, it is time to review the project using ecological knowledge of wild cheetahs and the elements outlined in the cheetah action plan.
- The current status is a far cry from claims that cheetahs would act as a flagship to evoke a greater focus on abused forest/savanna ecosystems and the need to restore them, as well as to take action to conserve endangered species in these habitats.
- It should have been a fundamental requirement for the project authorities to rigorously and comprehensively assess the suitability of the sites where the cheetahs would potentially be introduced.
Availability of habitats
This raises a fundamental question about the availability of suitable habitats for introducing a low-density species like the cheetah in India. At least 5,000 sq km of suitable habitat would seem to be required to establish a viable population of cheetahs and currently, this is not available in the country. This challenge also played out when at least two of the released cheetahs moved long distances from KNP traversing through human-dominated habitats. They continued to move out even after repeated attempts to capture and release them back within KNP.
Since the commencement of the monsoon, the deaths of three cheetahs have hit headlines especially with the radio collars being viewed as a part of the problem. To some extent, the official explanation that it was not possible to foresee this issue is acceptable. However, it is also a fact that the situation was poorly handled. Contradictory information was provided by people involved with the project. The official view remains that the deaths of the three cheetahs were natural, and that the radio collars did not contribute to the mortalities. If this was indeed the case, why were all the released cheetahs recaptured? Why have all the radio collars been removed?
Some ecologists and conservationists feel that the recent infections could be due to a novel pathogen for which these cheetahs may have very low immunity. There is also some evidence that these infections first began to be seen on the backs of the cats and in only one of the three mortalities did the infection spread to the neck/collar area, implying that the infections are not radio-collar-induced.
Although mortalities are expected in such projects, the deaths of six of the 20 adult cheetahs that were introduced and three of the four cubs that were born in India does raise several concerns. The lack of clear and consistent communication and limited transparency has resulted in confusion and low levels of accountability.
Confusing information on mortality values
It is mentioned in Annexure 4 of the Cheetah Action Plan that adult mortality not exceeding 15 per cent was used in the Population Habitat Viability Analysis (PHVA) but in Section 5.20.1., which lists the criteria for short-term success of the project, one figure mentioned is 50 per cent survival of the introduced cheetah for the first year, which in turn translates into a much higher adult mortality value. It is not specified if this mortality rate is pre-release within enclosures, or post-release in a free-ranging state.
Fifty per cent, 60 per cent and 70 per cent cub mortality were used for the PHVA. On page 88 of the Action Plan, it states: “...if cub mortality of >50% is observed, it would be a matter of concern...”. The authorities are now stating that 90 per cent cub mortality is normal and expected, although it is unclear on what basis this calculation was made. It would be prudent to use figures consistently to avoid confusion and build trust.
Criteria for success
The criteria for short-term success include cheetahs establishing home ranges in KNP and successfully reproducing in the wild.
Some of the foreign advisers have recommended that cheetahs be introduced in tiger reserves like Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Sariska. They have also strongly advocated for fencing the sites where the African cheetahs are introduced. These advisers have gone on record and said that cheetahs have never before been successfully introduced into unfenced systems. If so, why did they go ahead with promoting the project in India?
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To give a broader context, I quote from the Action Plan: “Cheetah introduction would greatly enhance local community livelihoods through ecotourism prospects. The restoration of cheetah in India must be viewed not simply as an introduction of a species, however charismatic it may be, but as an endeavour to better manage and restore some of our most valuable yet most neglected ecosystems, and the species dependent upon them.”
In the last year, 20 African cheetahs have been introduced in KNP from Namibia and South Africa. They have been held in some form of captivity or other for most of this time. Six of the African cheetahs have died, four in captivity and two while ranging free. One of the females gave birth to a litter of four cubs, of which three have died and the surviving cub is being raised by the management staff, as the mother has rejected the cub. The project budget for the initial phase of five years is Rs.39 crore.
Currently, there are no free-ranging cheetahs in India. They are all in captivity. This project has negatively impacted wildlife conservation in India by distracting attention and using up scarce financial resources. It is time to objectively assess the need for this project, the progress it has made so far, and the impact it is having on other priority conservation projects in the country. Failing to do so would neither be wise nor benefit wildlife conservation.
Ravi Chellam is CEO of Metastring Foundation and coordinator at the Biodiversity Collaborative.