Cheetah Ventures Out of Kuno, Authorities Bring It Back

It is “impractical” to adopt an approach that involves capturing and bringing back every cheetah which moves outside the park, commented experts.

Kochi: Oban, a translocated male African cheetah, was brought back to the Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park on April 6 after it had been spotted in villages outside the protected area for a few days.

Divisional forest officer of Kuno Wildlife Division, Prakash Kumar Verma told the news agency PTI that Oban was “rescued” and brought back to Kuno on the evening of April 6. He added that a monitoring team is keeping track of the movements of Asha, a female cheetah that was released into the wild along with Oban and had also ventured outside Kuno. Currently, the animal is within the limits of the Park and is being monitored by officials, a senior official at the park told The Wire. The cubs born to one of the Namibian cheetahs are also “doing well”, the official said.

Oban reportedly hunted livestock while outside the park. Experts have suggested previously that the cheetahs’ hunting of livestock in nearby villages could lead to human-cheetah conflict.

However, this is not a concern as long as locals are quickly compensated if cheetahs kill livestock, others said.

Cheetahs venture outside Kuno

African cheetahs Oban and Asha were released in the wild in Kuno National Park on March 11 as part of Project Cheetah, which aims to introduce the African cheetah into some of India’s grassland habitats such as Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh. The animals were among the eight brought in from Namibia in September last year.

Villagers have been spotting Oban near their homes and agricultural fields outside the Protected Area for a few days now. On the morning of April 2, videos surfaced of the animal in an agricultural field near the village of Jhar Baroda, 20 kilometres away from Kuno. As per news reports, the Project Cheetah team had tried to drive Oban back to Kuno by making a human wall and using vehicles to build a corridor to channel him into the park. However, the efforts did not pay off.

As per news reports, Asha, a female that was released in the wild along with Oban, had also followed Oban outside park boundaries, into territorial forest areas just outside.

On the evening of April 6, forest officials “rescued” Oban and released him back in the Park, PTI reported. However, the DFO did not confirm whether the animal was darted as part of the rescue operation, per PTI.

A senior official of the park, however, confirmed this to The Wire. The animal was darted by experts and released in the park following all necessary protocols, the official said. 

The female cheetah Asha is currently within the boundaries of the park and authorities are monitoring its movements, the official added. 

Potential source of conflict?

As per some news reports, locals also said that Oban had hunted a cow during his brief venture outside the park. Scientist Arjun Gopalaswamy had told The Wire in September – when the African cheetahs just reached India – that livestock depredation by cheetahs could cause conflict with people.

That the introduction of the African cheetahs could lead to human-cheetah conflict and more is something that experts – including Gopalaswamy and wildlife biologist Ravi Chellam, authors of a correspondence that critiqued Project Cheetah – anticipated. “We anticipate that adopting such a speculative and unscientific approach will lead to human–cheetah conflicts, death of the introduced cheetahs or both, and will undermine other science-based species recovery efforts, both globally and within India,” they wrote, in the correspondence.

Incidentally, the Action Plan – which Project Cheetah is based on, and was released in December 2021 – talks about managing cheetahs and the potential conflict that could occur in human-dominated regions surrounding the parks where cheetahs are released.

One of the five main objectives of Project Cheetah as per the Action Plan is to “manage any conflict by cheetah or other wildlife with local communities within cheetah conservation areas expediently through compensation, awareness, and management actions to win community support”. As per the Plan, a veterinary unit (created as part of Project Cheetah by the state government) will not only care for the breeding stock within the breeding enclosure but also “manage the released animals”, when they stray [out of the park], when they are injured or involved in conflict.

Y.S. Jhala, the lead author of the Action Plan, told The Wire that a quick and efficient compensation scheme would be “crucial and vital especially in the initial phase of the project”. He was formerly senior scientist and dean of the Wildlife Institute of India and led Project Cheetah until February this year.

So will conflict with people be a concern for the cheetahs from Namibia that are now running wild in Kuno?

“The very fact that they are herding the cats back and now seem to have also captured and brought it back, tells us that the management is worried about the safety of the cats, conflict and much more,” Chellam, wildlife biologist and coordinator of Biodiversity Collaborative, told The Wire. Chellam has studied and engaged with the conservation of Asiatic lions of Gir for decades. Conflict, however, depends on peoples’ perceptions, Chellam said. Many rural citizens and forest dwellers do not necessarily view the mere presence of dangerous animals as conflict; many, in fact, also accept that to coexist with wildlife there are some costs to be paid, he said.

Moreover, wild animals do not ‘stray’, added Chellam. They move due to “specific reasons” such as exploration, dispersal, to find resources like mates, water and food, being ousted from their territory and similar ecological and behavioural reasons, he said.

“It is impractical and not very sustainable to adopt an approach that aims to capture and bring back every cat which moves outside the human-defined boundaries of the protected area,” Chellam told The Wire. “It is also important to remember that attempts to drive the cats back into the national park or to capture and move them would be very stressful to the cheetahs.”

“Nothing to worry about”

However, the additional director general of forests S.P. Yadav said that the movement of cheetahs is a “natural phenomenon” and that there is “nothing to worry about”.

Yadav, who also heads Project Tiger, told PTI that the cheetahs exploring the wild was a “good sign”.

According to Yadav, conflict will not be a problem either due to the appointment of ‘cheetah mitras’ by the state forest department to increase awareness about the animals among locals.

Adrian Tordiffe, associate professor and veterinary wildlife specialist at the University of Pretoria who argued – along with Jhala, in a scientific correspondence earlier this year – that Project Cheetah is an important conservation effort said that he thought it “highly unlikely” that Oban killed any cattle while outside the protected area. “There has been no clear evidence of this and I have had no confirmation from the Forest Department that it happened…It is however, important that if any of the cheetahs do kill livestock that compensation is paid rapidly to prevent any revenge killings,” he wrote in an email to The Wire.

Meanwhile, the four cubs that were born to one of the cheetahs from Namibia, Siyaya, are “doing well”, the senior park official told The Wire. On March 29, Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav tweeted that four cubs were born to one of the cheetahs translocated to India.

Tordiffe called the birth of the cubs a “positive development”. 

“I think the fact that she was mated in India, carried her cubs to term, gave birth normally and did not abandon or kill them after they were born, shows that she is exhibiting normal behaviours and is not unduly stressed,” he said. “To me this is evidence that the cheetahs are settling into their new surroundings and that they are not highly stressed by the translocation, as others have claimed.”

The team also “expected” the cheetahs – especially males – to move beyond the borders of the park, Tordiffe added. “A cheetah that strays too far on its own will become isolated and is essentially lost to the project in terms of breeding. Once a sizeable cheetah population is established in India, these movements will be far less of a concern.”