Kuno’s Cheetahs Will Wander More, Experts Predict

With the second cheetah death in Kuno National Park, authorities have also begun to worry about space as the animals move out. ‘Bringing them back’ may not be a viable option in the long term, experts told The Wire. 

New Delhi: On April 23, an African cheetah brought to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park died due to heart failure. It was the second cheetah to die in the park, where India’s Project Cheetah is being implemented. 

On April 22, another that was released in the wild crossed Kuno, its surrounding grasslands, agricultural fields and villages, and almost reached the Uttar Pradesh border more than 100 kilometres away before the monitoring team tranquilised it and ‘brought it back’.

As Project Cheetah unfolds, so are the challenges surrounding it — some of which experts had warned of before it swung into action. The Madhya Pradesh forest department recently wrote to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) to look for “alternate” sites; Kuno could not accommodate more than 10 cheetahs, some officials said, citing both space and logistical issues.

Meanwhile, cheetahs will continue to explore the area and venture out of Kuno and in the process come into conflict with livestock farmers, scientists have predicted. Bringing them back each time may not be a viable option, they said.

Moreover, cheetah mitr – locals appointed by the forest department to increase awareness about the cheetahs in nearby villages – are alleging that the department is not keeping them informed of any development regarding the cheetahs, let alone their movement. With cheetah sightings in agricultural fields, there is fear – lots of it – in people, they said.

Cheetah deaths not unexpected

On April 23, a six-year-old male cheetah named Uday died in its enclosure in Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh. The animal was one of the 12 that arrived from South Africa in February this year.

A postmortem revealed that it had died due to heart failure, a senior forest official had said

But what caused the cardiac failure? A detailed report – to ascertain what really caused the heart failure – is awaited, and will be ready in a few days’ time, divisional forest officer of Kuno wildlife division Prakash Kumar Verma told The Wire

Stress from being cooped up in enclosures for too long is a factor, biologist Vincent van der Merwe told Hindustan Times after the news of Uday’s death. Van der Merwe had been involved in capturing the cheetahs in South Africa for translocation to India. After 10 months in captivity, the animal had lost fitness and suffered from chronic stress, Merwe told HT. The animals “must go back into the wild where they belong” and are “unhappy in cages”, he had said.

In fact, there have been reports of the cheetahs from South Africa having lost fitness during their wait to come to India because they were kept in enclosures since July 2022 when they were captured from the wild in South Africa. Officials had attributed the longer time in enclosures to a delay in the signing of the MoU between India and South Africa to translocate the cheetahs.

Uday was the second cheetah to die in the Park. Earlier, on March 27, a female cheetah named Sasha succumbed to kidney failure. However, that a certain number of cheetahs will die as part of Project Cheetah has already been factored into the Action Plan released by the government in January 2022.

“Not all deaths after release should be a cause of worry,” the Action Plan reads. “Mortality of reintroduced cheetah is expected in spite of all the efforts taken to minimise risks. Appropriate publicity needs to be done prior to the commencement of the project, so that all the stakeholders, public and officials are aware of this eventuality and it should not put the project in bad light or consider it a failure due to cheetah deaths.”

“The two cheetah deaths (one from Namibia and one from South Africa) observed to date are within expected mortality rates for a project of this nature,” a media statement by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) also said on April 27. 

Wanderers they are, will be

Kuno’s cheetahs are also wandering, and wandering wide. Currently, four cheetahs – three males and a female – have been released into the wild in Kuno. Of these, a male and female – Pavan and Asha – were first sighted on the borders of Kuno. Pavan has also ventured into agricultural fields in adjoining villages.

On April 22, Pavan (earlier called ‘Oban’) had to be tranquilised near the border of the adjoining state of Uttar Pradesh, and brought back to Kuno. He crossed grasslands, agricultural fields and villages reaching almost as far as Jhansi on the UP border, Verma told The Wire

“That’s more than 100 km away from Kuno,” Verma said. “We did not expect the cheetah to move so far.”

While the forest department had conducted awareness programmes for villagers near and around Kuno, they had not done this in the villages further away. This caused a bit of a challenge when Pavan arrived near Jhansi because people did not know how to react or what to do if they saw one, Verma told The Wire

Though the furthest so far, this wasn’t Pavan’s first foray outside the Park. In early April, the cheetah was spotted in a village around 20 kilometres from the Park’s borders. A video of Pavan taking refuge in a wheat field has also surfaced.

And it’s unlikely to be Pavan’s last – if he’s released from the enclosure he has currently been housed in at Kuno, after his April 22 walk to the UP border. 

That’s one of the predictions that a team of cheetah biologists made in a scientific letter published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice on April 20. Based on their knowledge and study of cheetah spatial distribution (which depends on the animals’ social organization and behavior), the team – led by Bettina Wachter of Germany’s Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, who had spoken to The Wire about this in October last year – made six predictions. Their first prediction is that the solitary male and two brothers will form a territory each, separated by 20-23 km. This gives rise to their second prediction: that all three males will occupy all of Kuno. 

“We further predict that irrespective of the territory size, these three males will occupy the entire KNP which is ~17 km  x 44 km in size (Prediction 2), thus not leaving space for additional territories for males introduced from South Africa,” they wrote.

A study in Namibia found that translocated cheetahs in that country explored the new area extensively.

“We therefore predict that the eight cheetahs will conduct extensive excursions outside the KNP during their exploration phase (Prediction 3), potentially coming into conflict with livestock farmers,” the authors wrote in their letter.

Their fourth prediction is that it will take many months for the territories of both males and females which are released in the wild to settle. This settling into territories will occur based on cheetah spatial distribution. So their fifth prediction is that the additional males (brought in to Kuno or born there) will settle around 20-23 km away from the already established cheetah territories, again coming into conflict with livestock farmers. This will again result in females moving in and out of Kuno too, and these too will come into conflict with farmers, as per their sixth prediction.

She expects the cheetahs to prey sooner or later on livestock, Wachter told The Wire

“Cheetahs are opportunistic hunters and hunt whatever is the easiest prey. We know from Namibia that in the core areas of the cheetah territories, livestock losses are very high because it is easy for cheetahs to bring them down,” she said. 

Moving livestock away from the cheetahs’ core territories can reduce livestock kills by 86%, Wachter added. In Namibia, the cheetahs then adapt quickly and turn to the next easy prey which are gazelles or juveniles of the antelope species. In India, this process of setting up the territories in a regular pattern could take a while. So it is likely that “livestock animals will be taken a bit everywhere until this process is completed”, she said.

The male named Pavan did bring down a calf in the Shivpuri-Madhav National Park area, Verma confirmed to The Wire

Kuno or another park?

It is important to let the cheetahs explore their new place because it will help them decide where to establish good territories, said Wachter. Bringing them back each time may not be a viable strategy over the long term. It is “unlikely to stop them from their need to explore their new home,” she told The Wire. “Every immobilisation bears some physical costs and thus stress, thus I do not think that it is healthy for the animal to do this several times in a row.”

Local forest officials are also waking up to the concerns that experts had pointed out to The Wire earlier. Space is an issue, and Kuno will not be able to accommodate more than five individuals since the animals have huge home ranges, scientists told The Wire in October last year. The animals could also move out of Kuno in search of new territories and this could lead to human-cheetah conflict, others had said.

In a letter last week to the NTCA (which is implementing Project Cheetah), the chief wildlife warden of Madhya Pradesh J.S. Chauhan wrote that an alternate site be identified for the cheetahs. Kuno could not accommodate more than 10 cheetahs, some officials told Hindustan Times. Both space and manpower is an issue, others said. Officials also told PTI that lack of space is an issue. All the 18 cheetahs cannot be released into the wild in Kuno, one official said. Some news reports suggest that some of the cheetahs could be moved to Rajasthan’s Mukundara Tiger Reserve.

While officials at the NTCA have responded saying that the plan had not been to release all the remaining cheetahs in Kuno anyways, several questions remain. As per the Action Plan, Kuno can accommodate 21 individuals within its boundaries. If the Action Plan was right, why won’t the animals be released there? 

There has been no confirmation from the government as to which other parks have been identified for the cheetahs’ release. Meanwhile, as the confusion continues, the South African environment ministry’s statement on April 27 says that the remaining eleven cheetahs they translocated to India will be released into free-ranging conditions over the next two months.

The statement does not mention that Kuno is where this could happen. However, it is “anticipated” that “a few of the founder population may be lost within the first-year post-release”, the statement read. “Many of the released cheetahs will escape the boundaries of Kuno National Park and may have to go through short-term stress during the recapture process. Once the cheetahs have established home ranges, the situation will stabilise.”

According to Wachter’s recent letter, if India plans to establish several cheetah populations in the country, Project Cheetah will need to be tweaked to take into account the big cats’ socio-spatial organisation. The predictive approach in their letter can be adjusted with new incoming information which will permit making data-guided predictions, Wachter said.

If the cheetahs are not fenced in and forced to live closer together, they predict that the big cats will follow the same social and spatial system that they do elsewhere such as in Namibia, where Wachter and her colleagues have been working for more than 20 years now studying cheetahs.

“It might be worth [sic] to observe in which direction the cheetahs move out of the park and then maybe try to identify another national park in this direction, thus to let the cheetahs establish a natural corridor,” commented Wachter. However, everything depends on the local situation in India, she said.

One of the cheetahs released inside a special enclosure of the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, September 17, 2022. Photo: PTI

Meanwhile, there could be trouble brewing on the ground: all may not be well among the people who now have to live with the cheetahs. Perceptions about the cheetah have changed for Sultan Jatav, who was proud to be a cheetah mitr when The Wire spoke to him in September 2022 when the big cats arrived at Kuno. Jatav, a 26-year-old school teacher, now lives in the village of Paira near Kuno and was among the many villagers who had to move out of Kuno on account of the Asiatic lions that were to first arrive there. He is a cheetah mitr on paper, but he’s no longer one on principle, he told The Wire.

“The forest department had assured us cheetah mitr that they would keep us informed about the cheetahs, but this is not happening,” he said. 

Villagers, including cheetah mitr, are hearing about the cheetahs only through media coverage. Jatav knew about the death of two cheetahs only through newspapers that covered the issue, he said.

There’s fear among people too, with frequent cheetah sightings in agricultural fields, he claimed. Jatav sighted a cheetah recently when he went to Baroda village, around 15-20 kilometres from Kuno.

“There is fear among the people,” Jatav said. “A lot of it.”