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Exactly a year ago, I set out on a 900 km-long road trip where trying to get to the story seemed more daunting than the story itself. Kuno National Park unlike the other high profile ones exists nowhere on the Safari Map of India.
There are no resorts greeting you with lemon-scented towels on your arrival, or a tan-coloured gypsy with your own personal naturalist, none of the trappings of a fancy safari. One private resort that once belonged to the Madhya Pradesh (MP)Tourism department and had clearly seen better days was packed with revelers from Gwalior who seemed more interested in the swimming pool than the arrival of the fastest animal on earth, was all that was available.
After the grueling journey from Delhi, it was another 20 km journey inside the national park that had become virtually inaccessible due to the rains.
The Launch of Project Cheetah in India
Since the cheetahs had not yet arrived, nor the Prime Minister’s security, I was able to access the Park and witness firsthand the ongoing preparations. It's only when you see the landscape of Kuno with your own eyes, lush green from the rains and you compare it with the open savannah grasslands that are the natural habitat of the Cheetahs in Africa do you realise why this entire project was going to be an uphill task especially for the teams tracking the animals on ground.
While the cheetahs couldn’t make it on the promised date another deadline of the PM’s birthday was set for their release in Kuno. Finally on the 17 September, as a celebration of the Prime Minister‘s birthday, the gates of their translocation cages were slowly lifted as the dazed cheetahs set foot on Indian soil, seventy years after they were wiped out.
These big cats of course one must be reminded are not the original species, but their African cousins.
Nonetheless, India has embraced them as its own and a battalion of scientists, forest officers, and foot soldiers has been deployed to ensure the animals were adjusted to their new home. In total, twenty cheetahs were successfully translocated to Kuno National Park (KNP) in September 2022 and February 2023 from Southern Africa as part of the ambitious project to re-establish the species within its historical range in India.
Uncovering the Spate of Unfortunate Deaths
Hopes then were high that once the cheetahs arrived, this part of rural Madhya Pradesh would be abuzz with resorts, jeep safaris, and a boom in livelihoods. The project that had started with much fanfare was soon to have a tumultuous year.
One by one, over the months, the park became a graveyard for one cheetah after another. At the time of writing this piece, six adult cheetahs and three cubs had died and the remaining animals have been taken into the five square km enclosure made for them.
Scientist Laurie Marker – the founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund and renowned Cheetah expert who has been providing guidance with her team observed in her newsletter – “Over the past year, this collaborative endeavour has been a journey of challenges, successes, and most importantly, lessons that underscore the intricate nature of multinational conservation initiatives." Commenting on why the cheetahs died, she said, “What seemed to be collar-related complications, causing the deaths of three released cheetahs, may have actually been problems that began with ticks. This is something that in CCF’s 33 years of using tracking collars on cheetahs, we have never seen."
Obviously, the death of the cheetahs due to a tick infestation and wounds caused by the radio collars, owing to the humid climatic conditions in Kuno had not been predicted.
Without the radio collars, it was virtually impossible to track the cheetahs especially since our Indian wildlife parks unlike Namibia or South Africa are not fenced boundaries. So the cheetahs had been straying outside sending the tracking teams in a tizzy.
A Year On, Where Does Project Cheetah Stand Today?
In April 2023, a male cheetah that strayed out of the Kuno National Park made it all the way to Uttar Pradesh and had to be tranquilised and brought back. This was the second time this Cheetah known as ‘Oban’ and renamed as ‘Pavan’ had to be relocated to Kuno.
The project soon was mired in controversy as the international experts were asked not to speak to the press and the senior most officer, Chief Wildlife Warden JS Chouhan who in fact was considered as someone who brought Kuno back to life during his tenure as a DFO was transferred.\
With their first anniversary, it is poignant to observe that all the cheetahs are now back in their soft-release, predator-proof enclosures from which they were released.
Some reports claim that the Central Zoo Authority is preparing to set up a managed safari. But this is far from the conservation goals of India having cheetahs back in the wild.
Here are the targets set by the Wildlife Institute of India, the scientific body overseeing the project:
50% survival of the introduced cheetah for the first year.
Cheetah establishes home ranges in Kuno NP.
Cheetah successfully reproduces in the wild.
Some wild born cheetah cubs survive to > 1year.
With the death of nine cheetahs and one lone cub as the only survivor of a litter of four, experts are questioning whether any of the above targets have been realistically achieved.
Another target set was "Cheetah-based revenues contribute to community livelihoods” which again has clearly not been achieved. In fact, many from the tourism industry claim that they decided not to set up any resorts in the vicinity till the population had stabilised.
Experts Weigh In on the Future of the Big Cats
So where do we go from here and what are the next steps? Big cat Specialist and CEO of Metastring Foundation, Dr Ravi Chellam is unequivocal on what needs to be done – “The introduction of African Cheetahs in India suffers from a few fundamental flaws. These include the disregard of science to inform the planning and execution of the project, inadequate consultation with folks who have a wealth of experience and knowledge of wild and free-ranging cheetahs, poor levels of preparedness in India, especially in terms of having adequate good quality habitats for the released cheetahs, hyped up and unrealistic conservation goals and low levels of transparency." "Unless these are fixed, especially securing about 5,000 sq km of suitable habitat for the cats, the project is unlikely to succeed. We shouldn’t import any more African cheetahs for introduction till we secure, restore, manage, and maintain suitable habitats at the scale I have mentioned," he added.
What about releasing the remaining cheetahs in the wild? Is it a good idea to keep darting and bringing them back? Chellam adds, “ Cheetahs are a low-density and wide-ranging species occurring in densities of 1-2 cats per 100 sq km even in the best of habitats. So far, the African cheetahs have only been released in Kuno National Park which is 748 sq km and set in a larger forest landscape. Cheetahs when released and allowed to range freely will go on exploratory forays prior to settling down. For one reason or the other, these cheetahs have spent the majority of their time in India in some form of captivity or the other. This has meant that the cats haven’t really had a chance to behave as free-ranging wild animals."
Renowned wildlife conservationist, MK Ranjitsinh who has always championed the cause of getting the cheetahs to India, admits that things haven’t gone as planned – “In the action plan, the mortalities provided for are in transit and acclimatisation, by resident tigers and leopards, from injuries caused by the above, causing inability to catch normal prey, from poisoning and poaching, etc. None of these have occurred. The deaths would have been avoided had there been expert veterinary care. Still, the project cannot be called a failure and the government must be complimented for its determination despite setbacks”. He also advises that the animals should be moved to Mukundra hills in Rajasthan, as also suggested by the ousted forest officer Chouhan.
Interestingly Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav on being asked if there was a plan to shift the cheetahs to other locations, was adamant that the animals would not be moved out of Kuno.
Could the fact that the ideal location identified in Rajasthan, is a congress-ruled state have governed this decision? Says Ranjitsinh, "Regrettably, politics and expediency override all other considerations in conservation decision-making in India, and the Cheetah Project is no exception.“
One year and nine cheetahs deaths later, we may have gained some experience. But for the fastest animal on earth, it’s going to be an extremely slow journey back to the Indian wilderness.
(Bahar Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author of Rewilding in India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)