Project Cheetah: Radio Collars Removed from 2 More; 'Don’t Talk to Media,' Officials Told

The Union government said in parliament that ‘traumatic shock’ killed the cheetahs Tejas and Suraj, who died recently, as well as the female Daksha in May.

New Delhi: In Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park where African cheetahs have been released into the wild as part of Project Cheetah, two more cheetahs – Aasha and Dheera – have been brought back to the enclosure for health examinations and their radio collars taken off. This brings the number of cheetahs whose radio collars have been removed to five, after the deaths of Tejas and Suraj last week that experts have said were caused by radio collar infections.

The Wire has learnt that there is also a gag order of sorts now on officials and experts involved in the Project that prevents them from speaking to the media about the current status of the project and its cheetahs.

‘Traumatic shock’ killed three cheetahs so far, the Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change told the Rajya Sabha on July 20. The response, however, does not indicate what caused the traumatic shock that led to the animals’ death.

‘Traumatic shock’ killed three cheetahs

Three cheetahs named Tejas, Suraj and Daksha died of “traumatic shock”, said Ashwini Kumar Choubey, Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, at the Rajya Sabha on July 20. 

The minister said this in response to a query posed by Member of Parliament Vivek Tankha of the Congress, asking whether the Union environment ministry has investigated the reasons for the cheetah deaths and what steps were being taken to mitigate this and sustain their population.

Project Cheetah – India’s intercontinental translocation programme that aims to introduce the African cheetah in some Indian grasslands – has witnessed the deaths of five adult cheetahs so far, of the 20 that arrived in Kuno from Namibia and South Africa in September last year and March this year.

Of these, the last two deaths – of males Tejas and Suraj – have courted 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. On the other hand, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) – which implements and oversees Project Cheetah – has insisted that all cheetah deaths have been due to “natural causes”. 

On July 20, Choubey’s reply to Tankha’s questions detailed the reasons of deaths of all five cheetahs that have died so far as part of Project Cheetah. Cheetahs Sasha (the first cheetah to die, on March 27 this year) and Uday died of chronic renal and cardiopulmonary failure respectively, the reply said. The deaths of three of the cubs born to cheetah Jwala were due to heat stroke. 

The deaths of three adults – Tejas, Suraj and Daksha – were due to “traumatic shock”, Choubey’s reply said. However, the response by the minister does not include what caused the traumatic shock to the three cheetahs in the first place.

Incidentally, Daksha is purported to have died due to a violent mating event on May 9. After the deaths of Tejas and Suraj last week, and experts attributing this to the radio collars that the animals have been fitted with, authorities have been conducting health examinations of the remaining cheetahs – including those free-ranging in the wild in Kuno.

Radio collars of two more cheetahs removed

As per a press note by the Madhya Pradesh forest department on July 20, two more free-ranging cheetahs – Aasha and Dheera – have been brought back to their enclosures for health checks. Their radio collars have also been removed, and the animals will be kept in their enclosures for further health inspections. The animals are currently healthy, as per the press note.

Aasha and Dheera join the other previously free-ranging cheetahs Pavan, Gaurav and Shaurya in captivity; the latter three were brought back to their enclosures over the weekend and health checks done. In total, five cheetahs have now been brought back to the enclosure from their free-ranging conditions in Kuno. And radio collars on all five have been removed. 

‘Don’t talk to media’

Meanwhile, The Wire has learnt from sources that officials as well as experts providing technical support and involved in Project Cheetah are under “strict instructions” to not speak to the press about any aspects pertaining to the cheetahs or the project.

Only the state’s Chief Wildlife Warden or the member secretary of the NTCA can communicate to the media, and that too via a written press note, a source said.