Exclusive | Secrecy, Political Rivalry, Egos Problems for Project Cheetah: South African Expert

Adrian Tordiffe spoke to The Wire about why he has said at least two of the cheetah deaths were avoidable, why he is no longer associated with the project and more.

Bengaluru: On January 16, African cheetah Shaurya (aka Freddie) died in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park, where Project Cheetah, India’s ambitious intercontinental cheetah translocation, is ongoing. Shaurya is the seventh adult cheetah to die at Kuno as part of the project. The post mortem details of the cheetah are still awaited, only after which the reason for the animal’s death can be ascertained, officials told the media.

The Wire caught up with African cheetah expert Adrian Tordiffe in an exclusive email interview about Project Cheetah and his role in it. Tordiffe, a veterinary wildlife specialist currently based in India, was part of the team that brought in the 12 cheetahs from South Africa in February 2023 and was listed as one of the experts by the Indian government in May 2023.

On January 16, African cheetah Shaurya (aka Freddie) died in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park. The animal is the seventh adult cheetah to die at Kuno. As a veterinary wildlife specialist who also researches on cheetah health and conservation, you have been part of the team that brought in the 12 cheetahs from South Africa in February 2023. You are also one of the four experts listed by India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority to be consulted for advice “as and when it is required” in May 2023. Were you informed of the symptoms that the cheetah exhibited, or its death, or asked for advice on this? If not, when did you receive the last communication from the ground team in India about the cheetahs’ status/ health?

No, I was not contacted about Shaurya’s condition at any time. I learnt about his death via the online news reports on X (Twitter). I have not received any direct information on the health of the cheetahs at Kuno since July last year.

Direct communication from Kuno had started to decline at the end of April 2023 after the second cheetah died. The last information I received directly from veterinarians at Kuno was on the 18th of July. Since then I have had no direct contact with any Indian officials involved in the project.

You said that you have not received any communication at all about the cheetahs, their health or any new actions to be taken for the survival of the animals, from the Indian government since July 2023. Do you know why?

Some video footage of the male cheetah Uday shortly before he died was leaked to the press in April 2023. The footage had been shared with me earlier that day and I think they suspected that I was the one who had leaked it to the press – I certainly did not. When more cheetahs were dying and very little information was being shared with me, I started speaking to the press out of sheer frustration, trying to persuade the authorities to keep me involved so that I could help prevent more deaths. Unfortunately it had the opposite effect. Gradually they ostracised me from the project.

Adrian Tordiffe. Photo: X/@AdrianTordiffe

You told me that you are “no longer involved” with the project in any capacity. Why is that? Did you get any official intimation from the Indian government saying that you are not associated with the project or are no longer on the panel of international experts who have to be approached for advice? Or is it a decision you have taken due to lack of communication?

There has been no formal communication with me regarding my involvement in the project. 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.

You told me in July last year that at least one of the cheetah deaths was “avoidable”. Is there something that teams on the ground, or the administration (the forest department) or the government, could have done differently to avoid this? And going forward, are these still aspects that they should keep in mind for the success of Project Cheetah?

There was a three-day delay between the death of a male cheetah on the 11th of July and the following death on the 14th of July last year. The cause of death in that first animal should have been obvious even before any post mortem was completed as the neck area of the animal was covered in maggot-induced wounds. Authorities there still believed that the male cheetah had died due to wounds inflicted on him by one of the females. If the cause of death in the first case had been correctly diagnosed, the death of the other two cheetahs that died in the days following could perhaps have been prevented.

What were the main challenges you faced when you were involved with Project Cheetah?

I think the main problem is the secrecy, political rivalry and the egos of the people involved. The high-profile nature of the project has created a situation where certain people stand to gain significant political points with those in power. Scientists like Professor [Y.V.] Jhala and myself were sidelined for wanting to speak the truth. 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.

Also read: Information Blackout on Cheetahs’ Health and Status Hurts Them, Some Experts Say Not in Loop

After you told me that at least one of the cheetah deaths was avoidable, the Indian government – specifically, the state of Madhya Pradesh – even issued a gag order, ordering that officials linked to the project not speak to the media. How important do you think transparency with the media/ people is, for Project Cheetah?

Science cannot advance in a society where information is controlled by those in power. 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.

What would you say the main challenges to introducing cheetahs in India are, now that you have visited the area (Kuno in Madhya Pradesh where Project Cheetah is ongoing), and seen and experienced the functioning of Project Cheetah first hand? How can we improve?

I think Kuno is a very suitable habitat for cheetahs. There were some challenges with the climatic conditions during the monsoon season last year, but I think the animals will adapt quickly to those conditions in 2024 and we should not see a repeat of the same problems. What we need is for the animals to be released from the management camps as soon as possible. It is not clear why this has not been done yet. The biggest challenge at the moment, in my opinion, is that management decisions there seem to be based on politics rather than science.

You told The Independent in July that you still think that India’s Project Cheetah is “one possible beacon of hope for a cheetah population that is otherwise globally on the decline”. Do you still subscribe to this view? If you do why, and if you do not, why not?

Yes I still believe that to be the case. There are very few opportunities for the expansion of the cheetah range in Africa. Most cheetah populations in unfenced reserves in Africa are still in decline due to depletion of their prey base and/or direct persecution. These factors are far less of a problem in India.

It looks like more cheetahs are likely to come to India: India has asked another African nation, this time Kenya, for more cheetahs. What advice would you offer for the success of the project?

I am not sure that Kenya has a growing population of cheetahs to share with India. But my advice would be to import the animals in May, just before the monsoon season. The animals can then remain in semi-captivity during the monsoon. Any parasite or other health issues can be closely monitored and dealt with. The animals should then be released as soon as the monsoon season is over. It would also be wise to carefully select individuals that are not too wild, so that they can be easily monitored by the monitoring teams after they are released.