New Delhi: Eleven African cheetahs are currently housed in enclosures in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park. The radio collars of six individuals have been removed after health tests, the state Forest Department said on July 23. But four cheetahs are still roaming the wild in Kuno because they have proved “difficult” to capture, sources told The Wire on July 24. This is worrying because their health status is still unknown, sources said.
Despite insisting that all cheetah deaths in India have been due to “natural causes”, authorities have been subjecting all cheetahs – brought from Africa as part of India’s cheetah reintroduction programme, Project Cheetah – to health checks, after experts said that radio collar infections caused the last two cheetah deaths. This also involves bringing individuals that authorities released into the wild back into enclosures in Kuno.
Eleven in bomas, six being treated
Currently, five of the 20 cheetahs that arrived in Kuno from Namibia and South Africa in September last year and March this year as part of Project Cheetah have died.
The last two deaths – of males Tejas and Surya on July 11 and 14 – have been in the limelight after experts said that moisture accumulation due to their radio collars caused wounds underneath the collars to be infected (indicated by septicaemia, an infection of the bloodstream) and then led to death caused by traumatic shock.
Three cheetahs (Tejas, Suraj and Daksha) died of traumatic shock, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, later said at the Rajya Sabha when it opened for its Monsoon Session on July 20. However, the top government body overseeing the Project – the National Tiger Conservation Authority, NTCA – insisted that all cheetahs died due to “natural causes”, in a press statement it released on July 16. The government has not changed this stance since.
But despite all cheetahs dying of “natural causes”, authorities are hurriedly subjecting all cheetahs to health checks. Free-ranging cheetahs – which authorities had released in the wild in Kuno – are also being captured and brought back into enclosures for health checks. Free-ranging female cheetah Gamini was brought to an enclosure in the Park and subjected to a health examination, the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department announced in a tweet on July 22. The animal was ‘healthy’, per the Department. Gamini is being housed in the enclosure for further health checks. Previously, cheetahs Pavan, Gaurav, and Shaurya were brought into enclosures on July 14, followed by Aasha and Dheera on July 20. Free Press reported that male cheetah Pavak was also captured on July 23 and brought into an enclosure.
The Madhya Pradesh Forest Department on July 23 tweeted that currently, 11 cheetahs are housed in enclosures, or bomas, in the Park: six males and five females. It also quoted Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) Aseem Srivastava as saying that continuous monitoring of cheetahs is being done in Kuno. The tests are being conducted by the Kuno wildlife veterinary team and experts from Namibia and South Africa, another FD tweet on June 23 said.
The FD also tweeted that the radio collars of six cheetahs have been removed following health tests so far. The currently collarless individuals – all of which the government claims are “healthy” – are Gaurav, Shaurya, Pavan, Pavak, Aasha and Dheera, per a report by the PTI on July 24. An official claimed that while some individuals had small lesions, the brothers Gaurav and Shaurya – brought in from Namibia – had “severe infections”, reported Indian Express, on the same day.
‘Difficult to catch’
Eleven cheetahs may be in enclosures in Kuno, but this also means that the remaining four are still out in the wild in the Park. They are Nirva, Veera, Prabhas, and Dhatri, a source involved in the Project told The Wire on July 24.
The source admitted that the animals have proven “difficult” to catch so far. Wildlife veterinarian Dr. Mike Toft, who arrived from South Africa to help the ground team at Kuno capture the free-ranging cheetahs will leave Kuno on July 24. So now, it will be up to the teams on the ground to capture the four, the official said.
Another official expressed “concern” for the cheetahs that haven’t been captured yet – as their health status is still unknown.
Meanwhile, criticisms of Project Cheetah, and how it is being implemented, continue to pour in.
Jairam Ramesh, former Union environment minister and Congress leader, said that if science “had been put at the forefront of the Cheetah reintroduction project in India rather than vanity and showmanship, we may not have witnessed the current tragedy”. “…Instead, the Modi govt is busy instituting gag orders on scientists and forest officers,” he tweeted, on July 23:
Stephen J. O’ Brien is a distinguished molecular biologist. He is also a dedicated conservationist who uses genetics to protect endangered species. I had spent considerable time with him in 2009 to understand the genetic history of the cheetah. His book… pic.twitter.com/JMSlJ4eodJ
— Jairam Ramesh (@Jairam_Ramesh) July 23, 2023
The Wire had reported about officials and experts involved with the project being told by the government to not talk to the media on July 21.