The world’s fastest land animal cheetahs were transported from Namibia to India’s National Park, Kuno in Central India’s Madhya Pradesh in September last year. Now in the last week, three cheetah cubs of the four that were born have died. The soaring temperatures in the country (47 degrees C) which led to dehydration have been cited as the reason by forest officials.
In the past two months, the death toll of cheetahs in Kuno National Park has risen to six. Among the casualties were two cubs born to Jwala, a female cheetah who was first named Siyaya. In March, Sasha, a male cheetah from Namibia, died due to a kidney ailment, and Uday, a South African male cheetah, fell ill and died last month.
Last year in September, decades after the species was declared extinct in the subcontinent and 13 years after conservation efforts to reintroduce the big cat began, eight African cheetahs – five females and three males – were scurried to India. Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, who released the cheetahs into the park, called their arrival a “historic” moment for India.
In the inter-continental translocation project, on February 18 of this year, twelve more cheetahs were relocated from South Africa. The 75 crore rupees project represented a big feather in India’s cap to restore a lost treasure. Over the next five years, the government has planned to introduce a minimum of 50 cheetahs into different national parks.
In a media statement, J.S. Chauhan, the chief wildlife warden of Madhya Pradesh, stated that the two cubs died due to dehydration. The scorching temperature on May 23 in Kuno caused the cubs to become dehydrated, and their malnourished condition made them particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of the heat.
Why are cheetahs not surviving?
BOOM spoke to wildlife experts to understand.
Conservationist and big cat expert Valmik Thapar told BOOM that the project is fundamentally flawed. He believes that the country's insufficient habitat and lack of wild prey pose major challenges in sustaining a significant cheetah population.
“India is not the land for cheetahs. For 300 years cheetahs in India were imported by the rich and wealthy, thousands were stabled in homes and sold in markets,” he explained adding that they were kept like pets. Later, many of them fell victim to British hunters.
“They were hunters kept on a leash and released to catch small mammals,” the expert said. He believes that this project, with its multi-million dollar investment, appears to be “ill-advised'.
“The terrain is unsuitable, lacking the necessary prey, and the high temperature combined with the absence of expansive open spaces like the Serengeti (A geographical region in Africa), makes survival for the cheetahs challenging," he said.
The expert believes that the larger problem will be seen after three months when the cheetahs are released and have to hunt other animals.
However, Anish Andheri, President of Wildlife Conservation Trust, believes the current obstacles encountered in the ambitious cheetah reintroduction project in India were forecasted. Though he acknowledges that the unfamiliar habitat and low densities can hamper the survival of cheetahs. Despite the initial setbacks, Anish is optimistic about the cheetahs' future prospects. He believes that subsequent generations of cheetahs would adapt to these challenging environments, ensuring their long-term survival.
“It's too early to talk about failure or success at this stage. The conclusions can be drawn at least 15 to 20 years later,” he said.
“Cheetahs, known for their expansive range, require about 100 square kilometers to roam freely. However, Kuno National Park, where the cheetahs have been released, poses limitations as it is relatively small, enabling a cheetah to exit the park within half a day. The habitat there is not typical," Anish told BOOM.
He said while the forest department is making earnest efforts, the team must meticulously monitor each cheetah, a daunting task in itself. The expert attributed the death of cubs to several factors, including the inexperience of the female cheetah, who herself was hand-reared and lacked the instincts of a wild animal.
"The chances of survival for the first litter of all large cats are very low," Anish explained, adding “Because she's inexperienced, she was not able to feed them properly.” For him such deaths can occur even in the wild, but due to the project's global attention, every animal’s loss rings alarm bells.
Abi Tamim Vanak, a wildlife biologist, criticized the project and questioned the allocation of conservation funds and the potential impact on existing native species. Speaking to BOOM, Vanak said that the government’s first responsibility should have been to protect the species that still naturally exist on the subcontinent, including those found in its disappearing grasslands. "There was no need to introduction of a species from a different continent," he argued.
Vanak emphasized that grassland conservation in India has received inadequate attention, with the government still categorizing grasslands as wastelands. The loss of vast stretches of grasslands in regions like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh every year has raised doubts about the decision to allocate resources to the cheetah project instead of safeguarding the habitats of Indian species.
The urgency to bring in cheetahs without thorough preparations and the lack of proper landscape planning have further fueled concerns about the project's execution. Though he acknowledges that the climate suitability for cheetahs in India is like that of some parts of Africa, he said that the challenge lies in managing wildlife conservation in India and ensuring the coexistence of cheetahs and local communities.
Some previous attempts
Cheetahs in India were declared extinct in 1952, merely five years after the country gained independence from British rule. However, plans for their reintroduction started in the same year.
As per the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, there are fewer than 8,000 cheetahs remaining worldwide, with only around a dozen belonging to the Asiatic subspecies. This subspecies, which once roamed India but is now limited to Iran, is known for its slender build. Over the past four decades, their population has decreased by approximately 50 %, and their once extensive habitat range has significantly diminished.
The Ministry of Environment in a statement had said that the move marks the first instance of a large carnivore being transported across continents to establish a new population. To facilitate their adjustment to the local surroundings, it has been planned that the cheetahs will initially be housed within a secure area protected by electrified enclosures.
According to reports, in the 1970s, India attempted to exchange Asiatic lions for Asiatic cheetahs from Iran, but negotiations couldn’t mature due to some political reasons.
Transporting cheetahs to India is not a new step. There have been previous instances of their introduction. The ongoing initiative to reintroduce cheetahs in India, using African cheetahs, has been under development since 2009.
According to a report by TOI, in 2009, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, brought two cheetahs in exchange for Asiatic Lion and two Lioness from Singapore to the Junagadh-based Sakkarbag zoo and dedicated them as a symbol of pride for Saurashtra and the nation. They died of natural causes after attaining the age of 12. The last one died in 2017.