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In an unfortunate turn of events, Daksha, a female cheetah who was brought to India from South Africa, died on Tuesday, 9 May.
"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. Violent behavior by male coalition cheetahs towards female cheetahs during mating is common. In such a situation, the chances of intervention by the monitoring team are almost non-existent," said forest department officials.
Daksha is the third cheetah – among the 20 cheetahs that were translocated to Madhya Pradesh's Kuno National Park (KNP) from Namibia and South Africa, as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Project Cheetah – to die in last two months.
The aim of the project has been to reintroduce the feline species in India after they were declared extinct in 1952.
But why did the three cheetahs in KNP die? What ails India's Project Cheetah? The Quint explains.
Three Deaths Within Two Months – Should India Worry?
Two other cheetahs – Sasha and Uday – brought to India from South Africa died in March and April, respectively.
The deaths of Daksha, Uday and Sasha have not only raised questions over the project, but also put those in charge of the project under scrutiny.
Speaking to The Quint, 83-year-old Dr MK Ranjitsinh, a former IAS officer, who is nicknamed the 'Cheetah Man of India', said that the project is a long way from completion. However, it would be possible to determine negligence only after the reasons for the death of the second cheetah are ascertained, he added.
"The first cheetah died of kidney ailment, and the reasons behind the death of the second cheetah are yet to be ascertained. But I can say with surety that Project Cheetah has a long way ahead of it before it can be termed a success," Ranjitsinh said.
However, Wildlife Institute of India Dean and scientist Dr Yadvendradev Jhala told The Quint that they had predicted only 50 percent survival rate in their first year of relocation to India.
"It's not something that should take a very heavy toll on the project. In our action plan, we had said that up to 50 percent of the cheetahs might die in the first year of relocation, and the current number is well below the predicted deaths. Plus, one of the cheetahs has already given birth to four cubs. So, looking forward, the two deaths shouldn't impact the project to a greater extent," Jhala said.
Can Kuno National Park House All the Cheetahs?
The cheetah, classified as vulnerable by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, is under threat worldwide with fewer than 7,100 of the big cats left, according to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The IUCN lists two subspecies – the Asiatic Cheetah and the Northwest African Cheetah – as critically endangered.
Even in India, cheetahs were once widespread – found in areas ranging from Jaipur and Lucknow in the north to Mysore in the south.
The project offered hope for the cheetahs to prowl the country once again. But wildlife experts have raised questions about the implementation of the project, specifically on the herding of 20 cheetahs in KNP, citing a lack of adequate area.
Bettina Wachter, a leading evolutionary ecologist at the Leibniz Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, told The Quint that as per the size of KNP, 2-3 male cheetahs can make their territory while giving space to a few females. The rest will fight for the territories, and might also run into conflict with the livestock farmers settled in and around the national park, she said.
Wachter, who has studied African Cheetahs for around 20 years, said:
"The territory size of cheetahs in Namibia, where the first batch of cheetahs comes from, is 380 square kilometers. Brothers defend territories together, thus I assume that the two brothers from Namibia will establish, together, one territory, while the solitary male will establish another one. The important point is that territories are separated by 20-23 km with large areas in between that are not defended by territorial males but used by non-territorial males ("floaters") and females."
She further said that as long as there is space, a male cheetah will most likely try to establish its territory, and thus, will settle 20-23 km away from another one. Hence the area of Kuno, if it's not fenced, can house 2-3 cheetahs with a few females in between.
KNP currently has 18 cheetahs, 8 of them brought from Namibia in September 2022, while another 12 were brought from South Africa in February 2023. One cheetah each from both the batches has died within a month at Kuno.
Project scientists and the Union Environment Ministry's action plan claims that an abundance of prey will allow Kuno to accommodate up to 21 cheetahs.
However, Ranjitsinh, who is also a member of the three-member expert panel constituted by the Supreme Court to oversee the inter-continental translocation of cheetahs, said that Kuno doesn't have enough space to house all the cheetahs and that space is a serious worry in the project.
"We need other areas because Kuno itself can't hold all the cheetahs. A few other areas like Mukundara were proposed but why they have not been taken up yet is a question for the government," Ranjitsinh said.
Wachter and her colleagues have also observed that the distance between two territories of the cheetahs has a separation of around 20-23 km.
"This calculation was done without considering the spatial system of cheetahs. Male cheetahs on farmland in Namibia which has livestock and resident prey keep a distance of 20-23 km as well as cheetahs in a very different ecosystem in Tanzania that has absence of people and has migratory prey as well as protected areas. We have observed that irrespective of the availability of prey, the distance between two territories of cheetahs is 20-23 km," Wachter told The Quint.
Will Lack of Space Lead to Fenced-Forest Relocation of Cheetahs in India?
The project is now under scrutiny after multiple experts pointed out that the cheetah-holding capacity of KNP was largely overestimated. That might shift its focus from free-open relocation to enclosed-confined to a few-pockets relocation of cheetahs.
Bengaluru-based statistical ecologist Arjun Gopalswamy highlighted that the cheetah relocation action plan appears to have substantially overestimated the cheetah-carrying capacity in the first release site (KNP), which was initially identified and prepared for the reintroduction of Asiatic lions.
"The Cheetah Action Plan, during its preparation, has not considered some of the contemporary research findings on free-ranging cheetahs. Since the aim of the project is to establish free-ranging populations of cheetahs, this becomes very crucial," Gopalswamy said.
Meanwhile, Ranjitsinh also mentioned that some of the cheetahs should be kept in an enclosed area – cheetah conservation breeding area – while the rest needs to be shifted to other forested areas that are fit for cheetah relocation.
The Madhya Pradesh government on Friday, 21 April, asked the state forest department to prepare the Gandhisagar Wildlife Sanctuary located in the Chambal river valley in Mandsaur and Neemuch districts in the next six months.
Earlier, forest department officials had written to the National Tiger Conservation Authority to decide on a second home for the cheetahs as KNP doesn't have enough space.
Free-Open Relocation vs Relocation in Fenced-Forests
India's plan to relocate cheetahs in free-ranging forested areas might also not work considering the predictions of wildlife experts, and it might be better to look towards the conservation of cheetahs in fenced-in areas than free-ranging areas.
In the absence of a natural dispersal of cheetahs owing to various reasons, the management of a meta-population bred in fenced forests involves a key step of distributing suitable cheetahs from one pocket population to another in order to maintain the genetic viability among them.
As per media reports, studies have shown that proper management of meta-population and addressal of other issues can help establish and relocate cheetahs in an enclosed, fenced pocket.
Commenting on this, Wachter told The Quint that the only way that Kuno could hold 20 cheetahs was if "the park was fenced and the cheetah males were prevented from walking away to look for a territory 20-23 km away from the existing ones."
"In such a fenced scenario, I would expect that the strongest males/brothers will set up 2 or 3 territories in Kuno NP and the remaining males will become "floaters", i.e. males looking for an opportunity to take over a territory. But this would result in an unnaturally high cheetah density which might be stressful for them. Such settings do exist in South Africa, but these are highly managed reserves which does not seem to be the goal of the India setting."Bettina Wachter, ecologist
Cheetah Relocation Project Done in a Haste? What Next?
Gopalswamy also alleged that the project was implemented in a haste, paving the way for problems and further issues in proper relocation of the big cats.
"The fenced-in cheetahs from Namibia are envisioned to soon move freely in India where average human population densities are 150 times higher. We anticipate that adopting such a speculative and unscientific approach will lead to human–cheetah conflicts, death of the introduced cheetahs or both…" he said.
Experts also opined that India now stands at a crossroads where it will have to choose between its aim of relocating cheetahs in a free-ranging forest, forcing native settlers to co-exist with the cheetahs, or shifting its focus on the conservation of cheetahs in pockets that are fenced-forests.