Ninth Cheetah Dies in Kuno National Park

Tiblisi aka Dhatri, a female from Namibia, was found dead on Wednesday, August 2 morning.

New Delhi: Another cheetah has died in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park. So far, six adult cheetahs and three cubs have died, taking the number of deaths to nine. 

A monitoring team found Tiblisi – aka Dhatri, a female brought to Kuno from Namibia – dead on the morning of August 2, according to a press note by the Madhya Pradesh state forest department.

Tiblisi was one of the last two cheetahs free-ranging in the wild in Kuno, and is the sixth adult cheetah to die, from the cheetahs brought as part of Project Cheetah. Three cubs have also died till date.

Project Cheetah

Project Cheetah, India’s ambitious intercontinental cheetah translocation programme, aims to introduce African cheetahs in select grassland habitats in India in an effort to reestablish the species in the country. India was home to a different subspecies, the Asiatic cheetah, in the past.

As part of Project Cheetah, 20 African cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa arrived in Kuno in September last year and February this year. Many of them were gradually released into the wild in the Park. Some were recaptured and brought back to bomas or small enclosures in the Park due to reasons such as territorial fights and when they ventured outside the Park and into adjoining agricultural areas

Since July 15, authorities have also been capturing many free-ranging cheetahs after experts pointed out that infections caused by the animals’ radio collars led to the death of two cheetahs on July 11 and 14.

On July 24, sources told The Wire – when four cheetahs were still roaming the wild in Kuno – that the inability to capture them was a “concern” because this meant that they had not been subjected to health checks yet to ascertain if their radio collars may have caused infections. A day later, authorities succeeded in capturing two of the four cheetahs (Prabhas and Veera) and they were “healthy”, the Forest Department said. 

However, two females Tiblisi aka Dhatri and Nirva – the last remaining cheetahs in the wild – had evaded capture. Authorities failed to capture them despite trying a few times, a source had told The Wire on July 28.

On August 2, a press note released by the Madhya Pradesh forest department said that one of them, Tiblisi – a Namibian cheetah – was found dead by the monitoring team in the morning. She is the sixth adult cheetah to die in the Park so far. According to the press note, a post-mortem is being conducted to ascertain the cause of death. Tiblisi’s death makes Nirva the sole free-ranging cheetah left in Kuno.

The “remaining 14 cheetahs” (seven males, six females and one female cub) are currently kept in bomas in Kuno National Park, per the press note. They are “healthy and their health is being regularly monitored by the team comprising of Kuno wildlife veterinarians and the Namibian expert”, the note said.

Foreign experts wrote to SC raising concerns: Report  

According to a report by the Indian Express, South African and Namibian experts including Tordiffe and Namibia-based Laurie Marker – all part of the Steering Committee – wrote separate letters to the Supreme Court around July 15, raising concerns on cheetah monitoring on the ground, as well as timely and appropriate veterinary care.

The experts said that some of the cheetah deaths could have been avoided “had the experts been brought into the picture rather than being ‘ignored’ and used as mere ‘window-dressing'”, the IE report said. Per the report, the Environment Ministry will “soon place the two letters before the cheetah steering committee for “detailed deliberations””.

South African wildlife veterinarian and cheetah expert Adrian Tordiffe had told The Wire as early as July 18 that communication between the Indian and South African teams was a concern. If the ground team had shared timely information with South African experts on details of cheetah Tejas’ death on July 11, the death of cheetah Suraj may have been “potentially avoidable” because they could have diagnosed his symptoms in time, he had told The Wire.

Authorities also waited a full day for the post-mortem report when this was not necessary to understand what was happening, Tordiffe had told The Wire. However, Tordiffe had also added that he hoped that the communication between the Indian and South African teams would improve since authorities had set up a system where information about the cheetahs and their health status and treatments on the ground will be shared in real-time with South African experts.

Earlier on July 15, Tordiffe, who is also a member of the Cheetah Project Steering Committee, had told The Wire that cheetah management on the ground left a lot to be desired. One issue was the level of veterinary care available at Kuno; another was the lack of a senior scientist at Kuno to coordinate the management and monitoring of the animals after scientist Y.V. Jhala – who was leading the project on the ground – was forced to retire, he had said. 

Per the IE report, these are aspects that Tordiffe’s letter also talks about.

Courting controversies

Project Cheetah appears to be courting controversy in many ways — whether it’s the lack of information being shared with experts as per their claims, or gag orders preventing them from speaking to the press, or confusions surrounding the causes of cheetah deaths.

So far, before Dhatri’s death on August 2, five adult cheetahs and three cubs died in Kuno. Of these, the causes of two deaths – of males Tejas and Suraj on July 11 and 14 – have been questioned. Experts on the Cheetah Project Steering Committee told The Wire that the animals died due to radio collar-caused infections. The very next day, however, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA, which implements Project Cheetah) claimed that all cheetahs died due to “natural causes”.

In a response in the Parliament on July 20, the Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change said that three cheetahs – Daksha, Tejas and Suraj – had died due to “traumatic shock” without mentioning what caused the traumatic shock in the first place. Experts have said that several deaths – of Suraj, and the three cubs which died due to heat stress as per official records – could have been avoided.

A gag order was also issued on officials involved in Project Cheetah which prevents them from speaking to the press on any information regarding the project.