'Why Is This Becoming a Prestige Issue', Asks Supreme Court on Cheetah Deaths

The Supreme Court also asked the Union government why all the cheetahs were at Kuno and not spread out between sites, including in Rajasthan.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday, July 20, asked the Union government why the recent deaths of big cats that are part of Project Cheetah was becoming 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.

A bench of Justices B.R. Gavai, J.B. Pardiwala and Prashant Kumar Mishra took cognizance of the recent cheetah deaths that the project – which aims to introduce African cheetahs in India’s grasslands – has witnessed.

“Two more deaths last week. Why is this becoming a prestige issue? Please take some positive steps,” Justice B.R. Gavai said, according to Bar and Bench

Of the 20 animals that were brought to Kuno from Namibia and South Africa, five have died so far. Three cubs, born in India, have also died. The last two deaths occurred last week, on July 11 and 14. Experts have said that the septicaemia that the animals died of was caused by the accumulation of moisture under the animals’ radio collars (gadgets fitted on their necks, that help track and monitor their movement), which gave rise to wounds that subsequently got infected.

“What is the problem exactly?” asked Justice Pardiwala, regarding the recent cheetah deaths. “Prima facie it appears that our conditions don’t suit them.” Justice Gavai also said that “40% deaths occurring in less than a year does not paint a good picture”.

In response to the bench’s queries, the Union government responded that up to 50% of deaths in the first year of the programme is “anticipated”. A “detailed analysis” of each death is being done and will be included in the status report that will be submitted to the court, it said.

Also Read: Three More Cheetahs Have Neck Infections; Expert Says Last Cheetah Death ‘Potentially Avoidable’

Consider sites in Rajasthan

Justice Gavai also asked why the animals were all put in one place instead of being spread out. The Supreme Court had already asked the Union government to look at “alternate sites” – either in Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan – for the cheetah introduction in May this year. A bench of Justices Gavai and Sanjay Karol had remarked then that Kuno is “not sufficient to accommodate” the cheetahs and that there was “too much concentration of cheetahs at one place”. The court had also said that “party-politics” should not be part of the issue, and that just because Rajasthan is ruled by the Congress, it does not mean shifting the cheetahs there cannot be considered, reported PTI.

Bar and Bench reported that on July 20, Justice Gavai “orally suggested” that some of the cheetahs be shifted to Rajasthan.

“One of the sanctuaries in Rajasthan (Jawai National Park) is very famous for leopards. 200 kilometres from Udaipur, I believe. Sighting is very good there. Have one more sanctuary there for cheetahs, consider it as a positive bias,” he is reported to have said.

However, the Union government said that there are problems in making arrangements in other states, and it was “not about politics”. A Hindustan Times report said that the government added that six tigers had died after relocation to a national park in Rajasthan.

The next hearing has been posted for August 1. 

The Supreme Court appointed a three-member expert committee in 2020 to guide the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in the cheetah introduction. Its members are conservationist and former IAS officer M.K. Ranjitsinh, Dhananjai Mohan (formerly the director of the Wildlife Institute of India) and the additional director general (wildlife), Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. As per reports, the Union government said in March this year that since the cheetahs have been introduced in India, it was no longer necessary for the NTCA to continue to take the guidance and advice of the expert committee. 

Now, the expert committee in their plea to the Supreme Court have urged it to direct the NTCA to keep it updated on the latest developments, and accept their advice and submissions regarding the cheetah introduction programme, reported LiveLaw.