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Information Blackout on Cheetahs' Health and Status Hurts Them, Some Experts Say Not in Loop

Namibian and South African cheetah experts told 'The Wire' that they are not getting information about the animals and their health status from Indian authorities, and know about developments only from media reports.

Bengaluru: Two cheetah experts who were actively involved in the introduction of African cheetahs in India – as part of Project Cheetah, India’s ambitious intercontinental cheetah translocation programme – are no longer in the loop about the animals’ management or their health status, The Wire has learnt.

So far, 10 cheetahs – seven adults and three cubs – have died in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park, where Project Cheetah is ongoing. The tenth death – of Shaurya, a male from Namibia – occurred on January 16. While post-mortem results that will give us insight into the reason behind the cheetah’s death in its enclosure are still awaited, monitoring teams on the ground observed that the animal showed a staggering gait and weakness before it died. Shaurya is one of the eight cheetahs that arrived from Namibia in 2022, and with which Project Cheetah kicked off – launched in person by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his birthday on September 17 that year. Twelve more adult cheetahs arrived from South Africa in February 2023, bringing the total number of adult cheetahs to 20. Thirteen of the adult cheetahs now remain in Kuno.

Laurie Marker, a Namibia-based cheetah expert, and Adrian Tordiffe, a South African cheetah expert currently based in India told The Wire that they are not getting information about the animals except for media reports. The Wire has reached out to the National Tiger Conservation Authority – which is implementing Project Cheetah – to ascertain if any of the other two experts are being kept in the loop regarding cheetah releases and their health conditions. It is best to keep at least one expert in the loop since they have direct experience working with African cheetahs, an Indian veterinary officer told The Wire.

No information except for media reports 

Laurie Marker, founder and executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, was involved with the release of the first batch of cheetahs that came in from Namibia on September 17 in 2022. According to the news agency PTI, Marker has been “instrumental in drafting plans” for India’s cheetah introduction and has traveled to India several times since 2009 for this.

“We are not getting information except for media reports,” said Marker, in an email to The Wire

When asked whether Marker or the Cheetah Conservation Fund are still involved with Project Cheetah in any capacity, and whether Marker was consulted when some of the cheetahs were released into the wild this year despite months of captivity after they were restricted to enclosures for health check ups following a series of deaths last year, Marker gave no direct answer; instead, she said that it was an “India project”. 

“We have spent nearly a year on the ground teaching about cheetah and the reintroduction. We hope that our work with them in training will pay off for the cheetahs,” she wrote in an email to The Wire.

Sasha, a female cheetah, at Kuno National Park. Photo: Madhya Pradesh State Forest Department.

Adrian Tordiffe, a veterinary wildlife specialist currently based in India, told The Wire that the last direct communication that he obtained from Indian authorities about the animals was on July 18, and that he has not received any information since then. In an exclusive interview to The Wire, he added that he was gradually “ostracised” from the Project, possibly because he spoke to the media about the cheetah deaths that had occurred during that time. He did not receive any information about the death of the seventh adult cheetah on January 16 either, he told The Wire

The post-mortem results are still awaited – more than four days after the cheetah’s death. Last year, Tordiffe told The Wire that the wait for the post-mortem results and not sharing information with the African experts had caused a delay in identifying the cause of the first cheetah death due to septicaemia (officially listed as a natural death due to “traumatic shock” by Indian authorities).

Following this, two more cheetahs died in a similar manner and these deaths could have been possibly avoided had the experts been in the loop, he had said.

“There has been no formal communication with me regarding my involvement in the project,” he told The Wire in the exclusive interview dated January 21. “I have written to the chair of the Project Cheetah Steering Committee hoping for some reconciliation. He did not even acknowledge receipt of my letter. It seemed a waste of time to pursue the matter further.”

The main problem with Project Cheetah is the “secrecy, political rivalry and the egos of the people involved”, Tordiffe told The Wire.

Also read: Project Cheetah: Radio Collar Infections a ‘Cause for Concern’, Team Expert Questions Ground Support

Politics over science?

“The high profile nature of the project has created a situation where certain people stand to gain significant political points with those in power…This was always going to be a challenging project as we had no real template or precedent to work from. It was critical that accurate scientific data was collected and shared in an open and transparent manner with all involved. Unfortunately that did not happen. The flow of information is now tightly controlled and it is difficult to know what to believe,” he said.

According to Tordiffe, the biggest challenge “is that management decisions there seem to be based on politics rather than science”.

“Science cannot advance in a society where information is controlled by those in power,” he added. “If scientists are silenced, conspiracy theories are allowed to thrive and people and animals end up suffering unnecessarily. The truth is the truth, even if it is difficult to face, authorities just do not want to acknowledge that they do not have all the answers.”

Both Tordiffe (along with other cheetah and veterinary experts Vincent van der Merwe, Andrew Fraser and Mike Toft) and Marker had written to the Supreme Court in July last year in two separate letters regarding similar issues: about their concerns in being kept in the dark about the management of Project Cheetah and the animals’ health. In their letters, they noted that some of the cheetah deaths “could have been prevented by better monitoring of the animals and more appropriate” and timely “veterinary care” if the experts were informed immediately rather than being “ignored” and used as mere “window-dressing”, the Indian Express reported. Later, however, both van der Merwe and Fraser dissociated themselves from the letter.

The Wire has written to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) for details about whether experts Tordiffe and Marker, or the two others listed on the same panel – Fraser and van der Merwe – are being informed about the cheetahs’ health and status, or being solicited for information regarding the animals’ health and release into the wild after several months of captivity. The story will be updated when they respond. 

Also read: Did India Get Its Math Wrong About How Many Cheetahs Can Fit In Kuno?

Why expert inputs could be crucial

Initially, the Project Cheetah Steering Committee listed four experts – Marker, Tordiffe, Fraser and van der Merwe – to be consulted for advice “as and when required” because Indian officials and veterinarians on the ground did not have hands-on experience on African cheetah health and management. The Committee has not officially announced if there has been a change in the panel.

It is “best” if at least one of these experts are in the loop regarding the cheetahs, Chief Veterinary Officer of the Wildlife Trust of India, N.V.K. Ashraf, told The Wire. Ashraf had told AP in July last year that it is important that there be a constant line of communication with people in Africa who have expertise with the species since the cheetah would be a difficult species to relocate and grow into a viable population.

“I hope that they are in contact and sharing information [with one of the experts], at least once in a while,” Ashraf said.  “There should ideally never be a disconnect [between the Indian ground teams and the experts],” he added.

So far, four cheetahs have been released back into the wild in Kuno since December 2023, after being confined to enclosures since July that year. So many months of captivity is bad for the animals, experts have claimed; this could have “biological and behavioural impacts”, as well as issues with breeding. Is this a concern? Close monitoring could be key here, Marker told The Wire over email. 

“They do need to be carefully monitored as to making sure that they are able to hunt enough as they get going,” Marker said. “They know the areas, since they were out before, and they know how to hunt. They should be OK – if they are monitored closely.” 

According to Tordiffe, it is crucial that the cheetahs be released from the management camps “as soon as possible”. 

“It is not clear why this has not been done yet,” he said.