Kochi: It’s been a bad week for India’s Project Cheetah.
On Tuesday, cheetah Tejas died in its enclosure. The cause, authorities said, was a wound just above the neck, possibly inflicted by a female. A post-mortem showed that it was “internally weak” and that the animal had succumbed to “traumatic shock”.
On Friday, another cheetah, also from South Africa – named Suraj – died. Authorities noticed a wound on its back.
Now, experts have said that the cheetahs’ deaths were due to infected wounds caused by the radio collars around their necks. It is a “cause for concern”, chairperson of the Cheetah Project Steering Committee, Rajesh Gopal, told The Wire.
All cheetahs fitted with radio collars will now be inspected, and a detailed health check up done, he said.
While “unfortunate”, the deaths are not a setback to Project Cheetah, he added. However, where is the accountability, ask experts, and how can we expect cheetahs to help save grasslands when they cannot even save themselves.
Meanwhile, a South Africa-based wildlife veterinarian who is also part of the Steering Committee has raised serious concerns regarding cheetah management on the ground in Kuno.
A patrolling team in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park – where India’s Project Cheetah is unfolding – found the cheetah named Suraj dead on the morning of July 14. It had a wound on its back.
Suraj, which was brought from South Africa and had been released into the wild in Kuno, is the eighth cheetah to die in India as part of Project Cheetah. The programme aims to introduce the African cheetah into select central Indian grasslands, where the Asiatic subspecies used to roam till around 75 years ago. The idea is that these charismatic animals will help save India’s grasslands, which face numerous threats.
Twenty adult cheetahs arrived in Kuno from Namibia and South Africa since September last year. Of these, five are now dead (cheetah Sasha was the first to die, of renal failure on March 27 this year). Three cubs born to Namibian cheetah Jwala have also died.
Earlier this week, on July 11, the monitoring team found that four-year-old male Tejas had a wound on his neck. Before they could capture and treat him, he died in his enclosure. The wound was probably inflicted by a female during the animals’ interactions, forest officials had said. The post-mortem showed that he was “internally weak” and was unable to recover from a “traumatic shock” after a violent fight with the female cheetah, per news reports.
However, both Tejas and Suraj died due to the same cause: collar-related infections, according to Adrian Tordiffe, a South Africa-based veterinarian who is on India’s Cheetah Project Steering Committee.
Tordiffe told The Telegraph that Suraj died due to septicaemia (an infection of the bloodstream) caused on its neck by the radio collar, a device used to track animal movement. The humid or wet weather could have caused water to accumulate underneath the collar, keeping the skin constantly wet, Tordiffe had said. Flies attracted to the spot lay eggs and the maggots that emerge “feed on tissues and create wounds that get infected and can lead to systemic infection”, he told The Telegraph.
“That [cheetahs Tejas and Suraj died due to collar-related infections] is true and it is a cause for concern because in my career I’ve never seen radio collars giving problems like this,” said Rajesh Gopal, chairman of the Cheetah Project Steering Committee.
Gopal has been associated with Project Tiger for more than 30 years and has, among others, overseen radio-collaring in wild tigers. “It is a clear cut case of abrasion and degenerating into sepsis”, he told The Wire.
Deaths “unfortunate” but not a setback
Tordiffe, associate professor and veterinary wildlife specialist at the University of Pretoria, told The Wire that he immediately knew that the infections were caused by the radio collars when he saw the video clip of Suraj that field personnel took before the post-mortem.
All the cheetahs in Kuno are currently fitted with African Wildlife Tracking (AWT) collars, Tordiffe said. “These are widely used in South Africa and are normally very good. This issue [of infections] has never cropped up with AWT collars before.”
It is “very strange” that these radiocollars are causing infections because these are state-of-the-art synthetic collars, and a standard procedure is followed to fit them, Gopal said. All cheetahs fitted with radio collars will now be inspected, and a detailed health check up – in addition to other existing health checks – will be done, he said.
But though “unfortunate”, the deaths are not a setback to Project Cheetah, he said.
“It won’t affect the project because the project area is characterised by a large number of births and deaths, that is how we envision the cheetah landscape, only then it becomes productive,” he said.
Challenges such as the cheetah deaths will occur but these are “not insurmountable” he told The Wire. He also said that cheetah habitats would not be fenced off, as fencing “goes against the tenets of conservation in India”. The fencing occurring at the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh is for the in-situ conservation of the next batch of cheetahs that will come to India, and small enclosures of four to ten hectares in size are being made to augment prey in the landscape, he said.
So when will the next batch arrive?
That decision is not yet made and the existing cheetahs need to “stabilise first”, Gopal told The Wire.
“…These animals brought from another destination [have to face] obvious changes in temperature, humidity, day and night durations, encountering a new set of prey, their anti-predator strategies and alarms are different…[they] need to fine tune their behavioural patterns in the context of feeding, adjusting, separating to avoid clashes (food and shelter niches with another co-predator operating there, which is the leopard),” he said.
Where is accountability, experts ask
But how are authorities expecting the animals to “fine tune” when each time they go anywhere officials do not want them to they are brought back to Kuno or when they get involved in intra-specific conflicts, they are returned to captivity, asks big cat expert Ravi Chellam. Chellam has spent decades studying and engaging with the conservation of Asiatic lions in Gir.
Chellam, who has been critical of Project Cheetah for several reasons, was referring to the incidents where two cheetahs Pavan and Aasha were captured and brought back to Kuno when the animals ranged outside the Park and into adjoining villages and fields; and when two male cheetahs Vayu and Agni were captured to treat their injuries sustained in an interaction with another cheetah male coalition.
Moreover, if the deaths are a result of injuries caused by radio collars, then it is “clearly human error”, Chellam, who also used radio-telemetry to study lions in Gir. “If this had happened to animals radio-collared by a wildlife researcher, their research permits would have been cancelled,” he told The Wire. “Where is the accountability?”
Conducting a health examination of the remaining cheetahs and testing their radio collars would mean darting and capturing the animals, thus putting them under stress again, he said.
He also expressed dismay at the number of cheetah deaths so far. All deaths except the last (that of Suraj on July 14) have occurred within the cheetah enclosures, where the cats are under constant monitoring and management by the field team, he said. The mating-related deaths (a female named Daksha died during a violent mating interaction with two males within an enclosure on May 9) could have been easily avoided. The project smacks of poor planning and weak management, he said.
“The whole effort is farcical,” he said. “The project is based on poor science and completely unviable conservation goals. What are we trying to do? We want to use the cheetahs to try and save our grasslands and its denizens including the Great Indian bustard, but the cheetahs cannot even save themselves. Who will be held responsible?”
Concerns regarding cheetah management
Tordiffe, meanwhile, said he has raised some serious concerns about the level of veterinary care available at Kuno.
Another major concern is the lack of a senior scientist at Kuno to coordinate the management and monitoring of the animals, Tordiffe told The Wire. Initially, the project was overseen on the ground by Y.V.Jhala, then dean of the Wildlife Institute of India, and his students, Tordiffe said. “After he was forced to retire, much of that flew out the window and currently, it is just managed by forest department personnel.”
“This is something we seriously need to address…for such a high profile project, I absolutely do think we need a senior scientist at Kuno coordinating the management and monitoring of the animals.”
He has raised this issue with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (which is implementing Project Cheetah), Tordiffe added.
Now what of the remaining cheetahs? Should their collars come off?
At this stage, the need is to assess how extensive the issue is – how many cheetahs are affected by the radio collars, and to what extent, Tordiffe told The Wire. If their wounds are minor, they can be treated with long-acting antibiotics and insecticides on their skins which will prevent maggots from damaging their skin, he said. But such treatment would mean bringing the free-ranging animals back to camp, removing their collars and ensuring they are in enclosures until the monsoon is over (since wet conditions would mean that repeated treatments are required).
Mike Toft, a wildlife veterinarian who has vast experience treating cheetahs in Phinda reserve will most likely reach Kuno on Tuesday to assist with the assessment of the other cheetahs, Tordiffe said.