'Are We Sinking African Cheetahs in India,' Ask South African Scientists

While some experts have said the scientists raise the important point that Project Cheetah diverts conservation funds that indigenous species could have benefited from, others say they have ‘deliberately cherry-picked information’ from “spurious sources”.

Kochi: Three cheetahs that were brought to India from Africa for Project Cheetah have died in Madhya Pradesh over the past couple of months. Over the last week, three cubs too have died.

Is South Africa “squandering” its cheetahs, scientists had asked on May 15. In a commentary published in the South African Journal of Science, scientists from the country – which sent 12 cheetahs to India – have raised this and several other questions about the ambitious programme to introduce African cheetahs in India. The project is not based on the best available science and it will not benefit cheetah conservation, they said. They have called for a “globally coordinated approach to cheetah conservation, based on sound science” that prioritises in situ conservation for both Asian and African cheetahs.

However, the team have ‘deliberately cherry-picked information from spurious sources’, and ignore or misrepresent credible data to “suit their own views”, said a scientist who is among the experts advising Project Cheetah in India.

A scientist independent of the project also raised concerns regarding some of the points made by the South African scientists, including their fears of hybridisation between the African cheetahs introduced to India and Asiatic cheetahs in Iran. This is “highly unlikely”, the expert said. That said, their critique of Project Cheetah for diverting conservation funds from indigenous species that desperately need more conservation attention in India – such as the Great Indian bustard – is a valid concern and among the most important critiques of the project according to him, the scientist said.

Also Read: Two More Cheetah Cubs Die in Kuno

Two questions

Four scientists – Kelly Marnewick, Michael J. Somers, J.A. Venter and Graham I.H. Kerley – assessed whether the introduction of African cheetahs in India is based on ‘good science’, and if the introduction would support cheetah conservation.

Marnewick (Department of Nature Conservation, Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria) studies wildlife in South Africa such as the African wild dog and reintroduced cheetahs, ranging from their spatial distribution, habitat selection and post-release movement, to assessing the success of the reintroduction of African cheetahs in Malawi. Somers is with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at the University of Pretoria and studies carnivores and their conservation and Venter with the Department of Conservation Management, Nelson Mandela University, George, South Africa. Kerley (Centre for African Conservation Ecology, Nelson Mandela University, Gqeberha) studies large mammals including lions and cheetahs in South Africa.

One of the many reasons the scientists gave for why the project has not “made the best use of available science” is that the founder population of 20 African cheetahs in India is smaller than the founder population of the Asiatic cheetah in Iran (the latter is the subspecies that occurred in India, and not the African cheetah). Inbreeding within the cheetahs introduced in India could be a concern. If the population in India grows, it could hybridise with the Asiatic cheetahs in Iran, they claimed. Currently, the populations are separated by thousands of kilometres and the country of Pakistan.

Authorities would have to keep supplementing the population with more cheetahs from Africa, “draining” African cheetah populations and spending “scarce conservation resources”. Once the Asiatic cheetah population in Iran recovers, they may be a better fit for Project Cheetah than their African counterparts, according to the scientists.

Another reason, they say, is that though South Africa claims it has ‘excess cheetahs’ to spare for Project Cheetah, there is no data to support this.

A cheetah from South Africa that was translocated to Kuno National Park. Photo: Twitter/@byadavbjp

Quality of data in Action Plan 

The team also questioned the quality of the data and the analyses conducted for the Action Plan. The Plan, the only document released by the government that furnishes details of Project Cheetah, estimates that the release site can sustain 21 to 36 cheetahs based on prey availability. This is based on standard methods, the South African scientists say. However, the “contradictory” statements made by former WII scientist Y.V. Jhala (who is the lead author of the Action Plan), raises concerns, they claim. Jhala told The Hindu in March that Kuno, which was the planned home for 20 cheetahs at the time, has enough prey to only sustain 15. However, he made these comments after his two-year extended tenure was cut short abruptly by the Indian government by one year on February 28 — which the commentary does not mention.

The viability analyses, risk assessment and data on which the project is based are not available for scientific scrutiny, so it is impossible to evaluate what risks the project identified, and how it aims to tackle these risks, the South African scientists added. Though the Action Plan provides some details of the population habitat viability analysis that takes into account prey availability, this is not enough, the scientists said.

“More details are needed on the inputs and why and how they were chosen for example,” Marnewick wrote in an email to The Wire

The team’s second question revolved around whether the project will support cheetah conservation. 

‘Won’t help cheetah conservation’

They quoted a South African government gazette dated 2021 that suggests that 13 cheetahs can be exported every year for reintroduction into cheetah range states without it being detrimental to the cheetah population in their country. As per the scientists, sending 12 cheetahs per year to India (as part of the agreement between India and South Africa) for ten years would therefore leave none for reintroduction to African states that the cheetah is native to.

“Clearly, these cheetahs should remain part of Africa’s natural heritage and be used to maximise the conservation of African species and benefit African people,” they wrote.

The Action Plan uses a 50% survival of the introduced cheetah for the first year, as a criteria to determine the short-term success of the project. That also means a 50% mortality rate, as per the scientists in the commentary: ten out of the 20 cheetahs brought to India are expected to die. Three already have. One has been captured and restricted to an enclosure because it frequented agricultural lands and villages nearby.

“It appears that the welfare of the animals is being compromised through a lack of mitigation of threats to their post-release survival and inadequate fencing, and the conservation potential of the animals is being squandered,” the South African scientists wrote in their commentary.

Incidentally, as per recent news reports, animal rights groups in South Africa contacted the South African Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Environment and asked them to pause the transfer of cheetahs to India citing ethical reasons.

The South African scientists also commented that the funds being mobilised for India’s African cheetah introduction project could have been used for in situ projects that help indigenous species, whether it is the Asiatic lion in India or the cheetah in Africa. 

“Establishing a cheetah sink out of Africa will threaten African (and Asian) cheetahs and undermine South Africa’s reputation as a science-based leader in the conservation management of large mammal populations,” they wrote in the commentary. They call for a “more coordinated and science-based approach” to cheetah conservation across the world. They recommend a collaborative, peer-reviewed system to identify and prioritise areas for indigenous cheetah restoration through reintroductions of respective individuals of the appropriate subspecies in both Asia and Africa. 

The South African team is not the first to raise concerns about Project Cheetah. Scientists who have studied large carnivores in India, Iran and South Africa, including the Asiatic and African cheetahs in the wild, had stated in October last year that Project Cheetah is an “ill-advised conservation attempt”. Some have also stated that the Action Plan is based on poor science.

Also Read: National Tiger Conservation Authority Constitutes Cheetah Project Steering Committee

Non-credible sources?

However, the latest commentary cites outdated population estimates for the Asiatic cheetah in Iran, noted Adrian Tordiffe, a veterinary wildlife specialist who is part of an expert team that is advising Project Cheetah. They’ve also relied on “sensationalist” media articles that villages pelted stones on a cheetah and such sources are “hardly credible and do not belong in a scientific journal”, he wrote in an email to The Wire.

Cheetahs are already being reintroduced to other African countries, so their argument that they should be conserved in Africa first before exporting them to another country does not hold, he said. 

“The risk of mortality for reintroduced cheetahs in African countries is actually far higher than is likely in India where the levels of poaching and illegal killing of wildlife are relatively low. In my view, the authors of the opinion piece are simply out of touch with the realities of the cheetah conservation efforts in southern Africa,” he wrote.

There are also enough cheetahs coming out of the South African Metapopulation Programme to support the reintroduction projects in Africa and the current and future requirements of Project Cheetah in India as per the cheetah numbers available with Vincent van der Merwe, said Tordiffe. Van der Merwe is the manager of the Cheetah Metapopulation Project, The Metapopulation Initiative, South Africa and also part of the advisory panel of cheetah experts constituted on May 26 for Project Cheetah. South Africa’s cheetah population was expanding at a rate of about 8% annually, and this permits the export of around 30 individuals to other game reserves within South Africa and other countries, Vincent van der Merwe told Al Jazeera last year.

The authors of the commentary also “grossly misrepresent the data presented in the Action Plan”, Tordiffe said. 

“The only two references to a ‘50% mortality rate’ are in one of a few population habitat viability analysis scenarios, where a cub mortality rate of 50% is evaluated (page 88) and in Section 5.20.1 where the criteria for short-term success/failure are defined in the context of the IUCN required exit strategy,” Tordiffe wrote. “Clearly, the authors of the Action Plan do not actually predict a mortality of 50% in the Indian cheetah reintroduction project.”

The Project also does not take away funding for other species, Tordiffe argued. A large part of the funding came from donations from the Indian Oil Corporation as reported in the media (valued at more than 28 million dollars), he said. 

“This is therefore significant new conservation funding that would not have been allocated to the conservation of other species, but as per the cheetah project objectives, is likely to benefit a number of ecosystems and other wildlife species.”

“In summary, Marnewick et al deliberately cherry-pick information from spurious sources and blatantly ignore or misrepresent credible data that is in the public domain in order to suit their own views,” he said.

A lioness and her cub at Gir. Photo: Ivy Dey/Wikimedia Commons

‘Main critique holds’

The South African scientists’ fears of the African cheetahs introduced in India hybridising with Iran’s Asiatic cheetahs by dispersing that far, while “not impossible”, is “highly unlikely”, said wildlife biologist Julien Fattebert, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, who studies landscape connectivity. 

He also pointed out that the South African scientists’ argument that Asiatic cheetahs should be translocated from Iran to India and not the African subspecies is a “bit weak” since there are only around 12 mature Asiatic cheetahs remaining in the wild in Iran. Like Tordiffe, he too pointed out that the commentary does not cite these latest figures and instead relies on older estimates from 2017.

However, the point they make of Project Cheetah not benefiting cheetah conservation holds, said Fattebert. This is because it does not support the diminishing Asiatic cheetah population in any way, or aid the African cheetah in Africa because there are several landscapes in the continent where the excess South African cheetahs can be translocated to before going intercontinental. 

But more importantly, the Project diverts conservation funds from indigenous species that urgently need conservation attention in India as the commentary states, Fattebert said.

Though the commentary mentions tigers and Gir lions that would benefit from such funding and attention, other opportunities include captive-breeding of the great Indian bustard (a critically endangered grassland bird whose numbers have currently dipped to just around 150 individuals in India), conservation of grassland habitats for Indian wolves, tackling the feral dog/wildlife interface problem, restoring vulture populations, and more, Fattebert wrote in an email to The Wire

“So yes, I really feel that before introducing a non-native subspecies, local efforts deserve funding and implementation in priority,” Fattebert commented.

Meanwhile, Project Cheetah continues in earnest in Kuno. The National Tiger Conservation Authority, which implements Project Cheetah, constituted a Project Steering Committee on May 26 to monitor, review progress and advise the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department and NTCA.

Earlier, three more African cheetahs have been released in the wild in Kuno, as per reports. India may be planning to build fences around Nauradehi and Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuaries, which have been identified as prospective habitats for the remaining cheetahs. As per a news report, a budget of Rs. 15 crore has been allocated for fencing these sanctuaries. India, so far, has not taken a fenced-in approach to wildlife conservation or protection.