On its One-Year Anniversary, Memories of Nine Deaths Hang Over Project Cheetah

According to officials, one of the major challenges faced in the first year of managing cheetahs in India was the “unexpected development” of winter coats in some of them.

New Delhi: As Project Cheetah, India’s ambitious intercontinental cheetah translocation programme, enters its second year on Sunday, the Union government plans to import more big cats that do not have thick winter coats.

Last year on his birthday, September 17, in a spectacle, Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned the cheetah translocation project which had been in the works for a decade, into a personal project and released eight cheetahs from Namibia into the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh.

On February 18, the second batch of cheetahs arrived in India from South Africa.

Of the 20 African cheetahs brought from Namibia and South Africa, six adults and three cubs have died.

S.P Yadav, Additional Director General of Forests at the Environment Ministry, said that one of the major challenges faced in the first year of managing cheetahs in India was the “unexpected development” of winter coats in some cheetahs during the Indian summer and monsoon, in anticipation of the African winter (June to September).

“Some cheetahs did not develop winter coats and remained infection-free. They are better suited to Indian conditions. Therefore, in our next cheetah import, we will be very careful in animal selection. We will prefer animals that either do not develop winter coats or develop thinner ones,” he was quoted as saying to Press Trust of India.

Yadav said that the winter coats along with high humidity, temperatures caused itching in the animals and subsequently led to bruising and exposed skin where flies laid eggs resulting in maggot infestations, infections and septicemia leading to deaths.

As the project, which has since been mired in controversy since the beginning, enters its second year, Yadav said that this time the focus will be on breeding cheetahs on Indian soil.

“The first thing that comes to my mind is the breeding of cheetahs. And if we can expect more litter, the cubs born on Indian soil can better adapt to Indian situations. Once the breeding takes place, we will understand how the population will behave in our country. So, the main thing next year will be more cubs on the soil of Bharat,” he said.

Cheetah deaths mired in controversy

While the government is planning to import and breed more cheetahs, the project itself has been mired in controversy because of the deaths of the big cats on Indian soil.

On August 2 this year, Tiblisi – aka Dhatri, a female brought to Kuno from Namibia was found dead, becoming the the sixth adult cheetah to die, from the cheetahs brought as part of Project Cheetah. 

Prior to that two males Tejas and Suraj died on July 11 and 14.

While experts on the Cheetah Project Steering Committee had said to The Wire that the animals died due to radio collar-caused infections, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA, which implements Project Cheetah) claimed that all cheetahs died due to “natural causes” the very next day.

Later on July 20 the Environment, Forest and Climate Change ministry in a reply in parliament said that three cheetahs – Daksha, Tejas and Suraj – had died due to “traumatic shock” without mentioning what caused the traumatic shock. 

The three cubs died from heat stress, according to official records. According to experts, several deaths could have been avoided.

“In India we had dedicated veterinary support and intensive post release monitoring. It was assumed that these two factors would minimise the mortality rate next to zero, at least in the initial part of the project till the animals are released in the wild,” said Adrian Tordiffe, a veterinary wildlife specialist at the University of Pretoria and a former foreign consultant on the project, told Deccan Herald. “As it turned out, most of them died in the acclimatisation camp. This was a setback.”

The project has also remained controversial because of the lack of information being shared with experts as per their claims.

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.

In July, Tordiffe had told The Wire that communication between the Indian and South African teams was a concern. 

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. 

“We had mortality from factors that could have been avoided with better supervision, expertise, and coordination with experts,” Deccan Herald quoted Jhala as saying.

“Prestige issue”

In July, the Supreme Court had questioned the Union government about the deaths of big cats and asked why it was such a “prestige issue”. It also asked why the cheetahs were all released in Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, and not spread out across sites.

The Union in its affidavit to the court told the apex court that the deaths are “troubling” but “not unduly alarming”.

The reply was filed after the Supreme Court asked for a detailed affidavit explaining the reasons for the cheetah deaths, and the remedial measures being taken, be submitted.  

The centre also said that a provisional diagnosis of the cheetah deaths “points towards natural causes”.