Kochi: Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, where Project Cheetah is unfolding, witnessed the death of the third African cheetah brought to India today.
A female named Daksha – one of the 12 brought from South Africa – is the latest casualty and died on May 9. She is presumed to have died due to a wound inflicted by a male cheetah during mating in their enclosure.
The news comes right on the heels of a statement by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) on May 8 that five more cheetahs would be released in the wild in Kuno before the monsoon arrives. The remaining ten will be released in alternate sites including Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, it said. This was before Daksha’s death on May 9.
The statement’s claim that it is “impossible” to determine Kuno’s precise cheetah carrying capacity until the animals have properly established their home ranges (because of several factors including prey densities) is contradictory to what the Action Plan has said all along, said experts. The Plan estimates carrying capacity at “up to 21” in Kuno. However, the government’s “wait and watch” approach is better than capturing the released cheetahs and bringing them back to Kuno if they venture out of the Park. The forest department will step up to the responsibility and ensure all the individuals are monitored as per directions, the state’s Chief Wildlife Warden J.S. Chauhan told The Wire.
A third death
Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park witnessed the death of a third cheetah, a female named Daksha, on May 9. In a press note, the Madhya Pradesh (MP) Forest Department said that the animal was observed to be hurt during the morning monitoring session on May 9. Though veterinarians attended to her, Daksha died at noon, the note said, adding that the wound was possibly caused by a male during mating.
“Such violent behaviours by male coalition cheetahs towards female cheetahs during mating are common,” a press release by the Ministry on May 9 said. “In such a situation, the chances of intervention by the monitoring team are almost non-existent and practically impossible.”
In a meeting on April 30 attended by Adrian Tordiffe (Veterinary Wildlife Specialist, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Pretoria, South Africa), Vincent van dan Merwe (Manager, Cheetah Metapopulation Project, The Metapopulation Initiative, South Africa), Qamar Qureshi (Lead Scientist, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun) and Amit Mallick (Inspector General of Forests, NTCA), it was decided that the male coalition of Vayu and Agni be introduced to the female Daksha. The gates separating their enclosures were opened on May 1, as per the press note.
Five more in Kuno
Before the monsoon sets in, in June, five more cheetahs – three females and two males – will be released in the wild in Kuno, the MoEFCC’s statement on May 8 said. These will be monitored in the same way that the other cheetahs that have been released in the wild have. The female that gave birth in March (named Jwala) will remain in her camp to raise her four cubs. The ten remaining cheetahs will continue their stay in acclimatisation camps during the monsoon. In September, the situation would be “reassessed”. “Further releases into KNP or surrounding areas will be done in a planned manner to Gandhisagar and other areas as per the Cheetah Conservation Action Plan to establish meta population,” the statement said.
As per the Action Plan, these sites include the Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS) in Madhya Pradesh, the Gandhi Sagar WLS and Bhainsrorgarh WLS complex in Mandsaur district in Madhya Pradesh, and the Shahgarh bulge and Mukundara WLS in Rajasthan.
Additionally, the cheetahs released in Kuno will be “allowed” to move out of the Park and “will not necessarily be recaptured unless they venture into areas where they are in significant danger”, the statement said. Once they settle down, “appropriate action” would be taken to “enhance their connectivity to the group” if they isolate themselves, it said.
As per the statement, a team of experts including Tordiffe, van der Merwe, Qureshi and Mallick came to these conclusions after they reviewed Project Cheetah on April 30, and after discussions with the Forest Department officials in KNP as well.
‘Impossible to estimate carrying capacity’
“While many have made predictions about the anticipated carrying capacity of cheetahs in KNP based on other ecosystems in Namibia and East Africa, the actual number of animals that the reserve can accommodate can only be assessed after the animals are released and have established home ranges,” the Ministry’s statement also said.
Incidentally, the Action Plan published in January 2022 was the first to do this. It estimates Kuno’s cheetah carrying capacity at “up to 21”. That cheetah home-range sizes and population densities vary widely across cheetah populations in Africa (as the May 8 statement reads) was already known during the time that the Action Plan was developed. So how did it estimate a higher carrying capacity than is being considered now? For instance, Qureshi, who currently leads the project, had told Hindustan Times that they knew that Kuno does not have enough space for all cheetahs and that is why other sites such as Nauradehi, Mukundra and Gandhisagar Wildlife Sanctuaries were selected as alternatives.
Since late 2022 and more frequently since March 2023, many involved with the introduction of African cheetahs in India have made several statements contradictory to what is stated in the Action Plan, commented Ravi Chellam, CEO, Metastring Foundation and Coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative. Chellam has studied and engaged with the conservation of Asiatic lions for decades.
“To me this reflects inadequate planning resulting in lack of preparedness and even poor coordination and leadership,” he told The Wire. “It also begs the question as to why the import of the 20 cheetahs was done in this hurried manner if we were not sufficiently prepared to release them for several months, resulting in their prolonged captivity.”
The scientific foundations of the Action Plan are weak and we may have put the cart before the horse by importing the cheetahs before ensuring the required levels of preparation especially in terms of the adequacy of the habitat for the cheetahs to lead a free-ranging life, Chellam said.
“It is also worrying that the Action Plan which was released only in January 2022 seems to be already redundant and nothing seems to have replaced it,” he commented.
‘Will do best’
The release of five more cheetahs in Kuno comes at the time when the Chief Wildlife Warden of the state, J.S. Chauhan, wrote to the NTCA recently requesting for an alternate home for the cheetahs. However, there is no “ambiguity” and he had only written to the NTCA that they take a call about the alternate sites mentioned in the Action Plan for the release of the cheetahs, Chauhan told The Wire.
And will manpower be a challenge to track all the cheetahs of Kuno as they explore the lands? As per the Ministry’s statement, monitoring teams follow the cheetahs 24 hours a day (maintaining a safe distance to allow the cheetah to exhibit normal behaviour and ranging), in rotating shifts. The teams record information on behaviour, including the prey the animals hunt. “It is important that this intensive monitoring continues until the individual cheetahs have established home ranges,” the statement reads. Officials, on condition of anonymity, had told The Hindu that they did not have enough hands.
But man power is our responsibility and there is no shying away from it, said Chauhan. “Whatever it takes, we will rise up to the occasion and monitor all the cheetahs released in Kuno National Park,” he told The Wire.
Experts, meanwhile, suggested that the government’s new “wait and watch” decision to permit the cheetahs to venture out of Kuno may be better than resorting to capturing them and bringing them back to the Park, as has been done so far in the case of Pavan.
“I am glad that the thinking of the management seems to be changing to ‘wait and watch’ rather than to capture animals found outside Kuno National Park,” Chellam said. “Wild animals do not recognise administrative boundaries.”
While it is very difficult to accurately predict what will happen when five more cheetahs are released in Kuno in the next few weeks, current knowledge of cheetah social organisation and spatial ecology tells us that they are wide ranging and exist in low densities when compared with other species of large cats, Chellam told The Wire. So we should expect them to explore the larger landscape and not necessarily remain confined within the boundaries of Kuno National Park, he said.