Three More Cheetahs Have Neck Infections; Expert Says Last Cheetah Death 'Potentially Avoidable'

In light of the recent cheetah deaths, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to chair a high-level meeting on July 19 to assess the progress of Project Cheetah.

Kochi: Three more cheetahs – Pavan, and the brothers Gaurav and Shaurya – have similar maggot-infested wounds as did the two cheetahs that died recently in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park.

South African veterinarian Adrian Tordiffe, who is a member of the Cheetah Project Steering Committee, confirmed this and said that efforts are on to assess the scale of the problem and if any other cheetahs exhibit similar symptoms.

He also added that the death of Suraj, a free-ranging male on July 14, was “potentially avoidable” and that authorities lost “a full day” in taking action while waiting for the post-mortem report of Tejas, the first cheetah to die of a neck wound on July 11.

Meanwhile, in light of the recent deaths, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will conduct a high-level meeting on the progress of Project Cheetah on Wednesday, July 19, per news reports.

Three more cheetahs under treatment

Twenty African cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa arrived at Kuno National Park starting in September last year as part of Project Cheetah, India’s ambitious cheetah introduction programme. Five of these adults have died due to various reasons since March 27.

The last two deaths – of males Tejas and Suraj – have been mired in controversy. Experts on the Cheetah Project Steering Committee told The Wire that the deaths were caused by septicaemia, an infection of the bloodstream, brought on by the combined effects of abrasion of radio collars fitted on their necks and moisture accumulated under the collars, which progressed to dermatitis, sepsis and ultimately, death.

However, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) on July 16 stated that all cheetah deaths are due to “natural causes” and that any reports attributing the deaths to other reasons are “speculation and hearsay and not based on any scientific evidence”.

Now, three more male cheetahs in Kuno have been reported to have similar wounds on their necks that are suggestive of radio collar infections, Tordiffe told The Wire.

Also Read: Project Cheetah: Radio Collar Infections a ‘Cause for Concern’, Team Expert Questions Ground Support

The three cheetahs are Pavan (aka Oban, who was brought back to an enclosure in Kuno after he ranged outside the park and almost reached Jhansi, in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh); and the brothers Gaurav and Shaurya (aka the “Rockstars”, Freddie and Elton).

When cheetahs Tejas and Suraj that died last week showed symptoms of septicaemia, it was obvious that other cheetahs too may show similar symptoms and that has come to be, said Tordiffe.

“The fact that other cases have also been noticed again proves that we were 100% right on what the problem and diagnosis is … People were doubting the diagnosis, but when they do that they will not take appropriate action and this could have tragic consequences for the cheetahs.”

‘Suraj’s death was avoidable’

The NTCA’s statement that all cheetah deaths were due to natural causes “surprised” him, said Tordiffe.

“It suggests that we are in denial,” he commented. “‘Natural causes’ is a vague and unhelpful label to put on the deaths.”

Deaths are better defined as avoidable or unavoidable, he said. “‘Avoidable’ means that you knew that this might be a problem and did nothing about it. That to me is irresponsible.”

The death of cheetah Tejas on Tuesday was “unavoidable” and “unanticipated”, he said. But the next death of the free-ranging male Suraj, on July 14, was “potentially avoidable”, Tordiffe told The Wire.

There was a delay in the diagnosis of Tejas’ death, with no photos being shared by the ground team with the South African team. Authorities also waited a full day for the post mortem report – when this was not necessary to understand what was happening – Tordiffe said.

“There was a full day delay before we knew what was going on and jumped into action … we could have got the ball rolling a lot earlier,” he commented.

Pavan aka Oban was examined on Friday as well and it was clear his symptoms were identical to the cheetah that died earlier, the vet told The Wire.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks at one of the cheetah at the Kuno National Park. Photo: PMO

Fit is right; moisture, an issue

The cheetahs’ radio collars fit just right: not too loose, nor too tight. The issue, according to Tordiffe, is the moisture that gets trapped under the collars due to the humid and wet conditions that the monsoon has posed in Kuno.

The African Wildlife Tracking (AWT) collars that cheetahs are fitted with work perfectly well in Africa and such a problem is unheard of in the continent, per Tordiffe. The difference in weather patterns in Africa and India could be a factor here.

According to Tordiffe, rains in the cheetah habitats in Africa fluctuate and are followed by dry spells. This helps dry out the animals’ fur and allows recovery. In Kuno however, monsoon rains have persisted. Their coats, therefore, remain wet. Moreover, the cheetahs have to move through wet grass to hunt – so their fur doesn’t dry in such conditions, he told The Wire.

There’s barely any scientific literature on rainy conditions causing collar-related infections. But a 2013 study of reintroduced agoutis, a species of South American rodent, found that animals fitted with radio collars (not AWT but Telenax Wildlife Telemetry ones, however) developed “serious wounds”; one even died.

“After two rainy weeks (with a total rainfall of 375.6 mm), we observed with our naked eyes that our subjects had developed neck injuries around the collars (the agoutis’ necks were red, with wounds; the animals were scratching it and trying to remove the collars),” the study reads.

However, the injuries did not occur after the team modified the collars by reducing their width. This, they said, reduced water retention under the collar.

Another factor at play could be cheetah behaviour. Cheetahs do not groom themselves as much as most other cat species do, said Tordiffe. Leopards, for instance, keep themselves meticulously clean and lick their coats regularly, but cheetahs don’t. Lesser grooming means that skin wounds in cheetahs aggravate faster, the vet said.

This is one reason why time is of the essence and urgent measures need to be taken immediately, Tordiffe said. Catching the infections in time through proper monitoring is also crucial because while superficial skin wounds can be treated easily, deeper infections that hit their vital organs are more problematic to treat.

Efforts on to assess problem

According to Tordiffe, the first immediate measure that needs to be taken is to assess the scale of the problem in all animals. This process is ongoing; monitoring teams on ground are also observing the animals closely for any symptoms so that they can be treated as soon as possible, Tordiffe added.

Once the extent of the problem is revealed, several decisions will have to be made. If an animal has no lesions, the collar can be left on. But then again, what if it develops an infection a few days later?

It might be practical to bring all cheetahs back to the enclosures for the monsoon and take off their collars during this time, till the humid and wet conditions at Kuno pass, Tordiffe said. Officials also told PTI on July 18 that all radio-collared free-ranging cheetahs at Kuno may be brought back to their enclosures for “close examination” and drones may be used to monitor their movement in the wild.

A lot of these decisions will also depend on individual cheetah personalities and behaviour, Tordiffe added. Some cheetahs are skittish around people and do not let them venture close at all; others, like Pavan, are not, he said. Moreover, darting the free-ranging cheetahs in the wild in Kuno will be all the more challenging as this will have to be done over a longer distance than usual.

Communication between the Indian and South African teams – which Tordiffe had flagged as a concern – will also hopefully improve as authorities have now 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, Tordiffe said.

High-level meeting on Wednesday

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will chair a high-level meeting on Wednesday, July 19, to track the progress of Project Cheetah, the Times of India reported. Officials told the media house that both the union environment minister Bhupender Yadav and Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan have been tasked with monitoring the situation continuously.

As per the story, the union environment ministry has appointed a team of five experts, including from the Indian Forest Service, to inspect Kuno National Park.