Authorities Say Recent Cheetah Deaths Due to 'Natural Causes'; MP Chief Wildlife Warden Transferred

The National Tiger Conservation Authority has said any reports attributing the deaths to other reasons are 'speculation and hearsay and not based on any scientific evidence'.

Kochi: After expert members of the Project Cheetah Steering Committee said that collar-related infections caused two recent cheetah deaths, the National Tiger Conservation Authority on July 16 issued a statement saying that all cheetah deaths occurred due to “natural causes” and that any reports attributing the deaths to other reasons are “speculation and hearsay and not based on any scientific evidence”.

Meanwhile, the Madhya Pradesh state government on July 17 transferred chief wildlife warden J.S. Chauhan with immediate effect on “administrative grounds”. Aseem Srivastava, formerly the principal chief conservator of forest (production) will now take over as PCCF (Wildlife) in Chauhan’s stead. The Cheetah Project Steering Committee met on July 17 and discussed matters including the recent deaths, forest officials said. According to them, daily press releases by the government of India to “avoid confusion” are possibly on the cards.

Cheetah deaths 

Project Cheetah, India’s ambitious cheetah introduction programme, is unfolding in the grasslands of Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh. Of the 20 cheetahs that were brought in from Namibia and South Africa in September last year, five died due to various reasons.

The last two deaths – of male cheetahs Tejas and Suraj – have been mired in controversy. Tejas, which died on July 11 in its enclosure, had a wound above its neck, and forest officials said this occurred after a violent interaction with a female cheetah. A post-mortem revealed that he was “internally weak” and couldn’t recover from “traumatic shock”. A free-ranging male Suraj died on July 14, and authorities noticed a wound on his back.

On July 14, South African veterinarian Adrian Tordiffe said that both deaths seem to be caused by moisture accumulation under the animal’s radio collar due to the humid weather, which caused septicaemia, an infection of the bloodstream. Rajesh Gopal, the chairperson of the Cheetah Project Steering Committee (which oversees and advises Project Cheetah on cheetah management), confirmed to The Wire on July 15 that this was true and that it was a “cause for concern”. All cheetahs fitted with radio collars would be examined and their detailed health checks done, he had said.

All natural deaths, insists NTCA

However, all deaths are due to “natural causes”, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA, which implements Project Cheetah in India) said in a statement the next day, July 16, after the publication of The Wire’s story quoting Cheetah Project Steering Committee members. Any reports in the media attributing these deaths to other reasons including radio collars “are not based on any scientific evidence but are speculation and hearsay”.

“Project Cheetah is yet to complete a year and it will be premature to conclude the outcome in terms of success and failure, since Cheetah reintroduction is a long-term project,” the statement read. 

It also said that consultations with international cheetah experts/veterinary doctors from South Africa and Namibia are being conducted on a regular basis to investigate the cause of the cheetah deaths. Aspects including existing monitoring protocols, managerial inputs, veterinary facilities, training and capacity-building aspects are being reviewed by independent national experts, the statement claimed. 

“The Cheetah Project Steering Committee is closely monitoring the project and has expressed satisfaction over its implementation so far,” it stated.

Tordiffe, who is also part of the Steering Committee, had told The Wire that he has raised serious concerns regarding cheetah management on the ground in Kuno. He cited the lack of veterinary care available to the cheetahs, and the lack of a senior scientist at Kuno to coordinate the management and monitoring of the animals, as concerns that need immediate addressing. 

Tordiffe also told The Telegraph on July 17 that instead of labeling deaths as natural or unnatural, it is better to speak of avoidable versus unavoidable deaths. “If you know a potential risk and do nothing to mitigate that risk, then it is an avoidable risk and you failed in your responsibility,” he told the media house.

He also told The Independent that currently, communication failure with the Indian team is a problem. He has “very little access to accurate, real-time data” about the cheetahs from Kuno. He added that poor management was “almost certainly” a factor in the death of the three cubs born to the cheetah named Jwala. The cubs died within days of each other in May; currently, a single cub remains in Kuno.

MP gets new Chief Wildlife Warden

The Madhya Pradesh state government on Monday transferred the Chief Wildlife Warden J.S. Chauhan, currently the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Wildlife, to the Production wing, and the PCCF, Production, has been appointed the new PCCF (Wildlife), with immediate effect as of July 17. Aseem Srivastava will be the new Chief Wildlife Warden. As per the government order, the transfers have been made on “administrative grounds” and the postings are temporary.

Project Cheetah was kicked off in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park during Chauhan’s tenure as Chief Wildlife Warden. In April this year, Chauhan confirmed to Hindustan Times that the MP government had written to the NTCA to find a second home for the cheetahs since Kuno may not be able to house more than 10 of them.

On July 17, Chauhan told the Indian Express that infections occurring in the cheetahs because of their radio collars during the monsoon was “a possibility” and could be “one of the reasons” for the cheetah deaths. He had also suggested that two other male cheetahs, Gaurav and Shaurya, may have similar problems as Tejas and Suraj did.

Daily updates on Project Cheetah?

The Steering Committee meeting today, July 17, discussed several aspects including the cheetah deaths and decisions that can be expected tomorrow, Kuno divisional forest officer (DFO) P.K. Verma told The Wire on Monday. Orders have also been issued replacing Verma with immediate effect.  

The NTCA and the government of India would also be issuing a press release every day so that there will be no confusion in the media, or “conflicting news coming”, he claimed. 

A senior official in the department, on condition of anonymity, said that not all cheetahs would be captured for examination. The teams and veterinarians on the ground are “closely watching” the cheetahs, the official said, adding that no other animals had collar-related injuries.