3 Aug 2023

Madhya Pradesh Kuno Cheetah: Is Project Doomed After 9 Deaths, What Are Challenges Ahead?

In a span of less than five months, nine cheetahs have died in Kuno national park, including three cubs born in India.

Under the Project Cheetah, a total of 20 animals were imported from Namibia and South Africa to the KNP in two batches -- one in September last year and the second in February this year.

Since March, six of these adult cheetahs have died due to various reasons. In May, three of the four cubs born to a female Namibian cheetah had also succumbed to extreme heat. The remaining cub is being hand-raised for future wildling.

Deaths of some of the felines could have been prevented

Cheetah experts from South Africa and Namibia, including Dr Adrian Tordiffe, Vincent van der Merwe, Dr Andy Fraser and Dr Mike Toft, feel that the deaths of some of the felines in Kuno National Park could have been prevented by better monitoring and timely veterinary care.

In letters to the Supreme Court, the international experts have raised concerns about the management of the translocation project. 

The experts, who are part of the steering committee that translocated 20 cheetahs to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh from South Africa and Namibia last year, said that they had been ignored and very little information has been forthcoming from Kuno regarding the cheetahs and their care. 

They also said the cheetah project’s management team in India has little or no scientific training and that inputs from South Africa were being ignored. 

Wildlife experts have said that some of the cheetahs could have died due to infection caused by radio collars put around their necks.

Cheetahs developing thick coats of fur

Meanwhile, the natural process of cheetahs developing thick coats of fur in anticipation of African winter appears to be proving fatal in India's wet and hot conditions, international experts involved in the Project Cheetah have said.

Government officials acknowledged that even the African experts had not anticipated such a situation.

A government official associated with the project said that not all the felines have developed thicker coats and that the mortalities are well within the accepted range as such translocations have faced challenges in the past too.

Concerns about the potential risks of treatment

Though the experts suggest interventions such as shaving off the winter coats, there are concerns about the potential risks of treatment including administering medicine, involving darting, capturing and returning the cheetahs to enclosures as such actions may lead to stress and mortality risks, impacting the cheetahs' adjustment to their new habitat.

Tranquilizing cheetah carries a high risk of mortality

Research shows tranquilizing cheetah carries a high risk of mortality and the extreme stress prevents the cheetahs from settling into their new habitat.

Ravi Chellam, wildlife expert and coordinator of Biodiversity Collaborative, Bengaluru, called for stopping the import of more cheetahs, considering the challenges faced in India.

Last month, two South African male cheetahs -- Tejas and Suraj -- died due to infection in wounds caused by the radio collars around their necks. However, the environment ministry said all cheetah deaths were due to natural causes.

Three Namibian male cheetahs -- Pawan, Gaurav, and Shaurya -- and two females -- Aasha and Savannah -- were subsequently found having similar skin infections.

An expert veterinarian from South Africa cleaned up the wounds. All the cheetahs have been administered Fluralaner, a systemic insecticide and acaricide given orally or topically.

There could be a need to repeat the treatment before the monsoon season next year to reduce parasite loads until the animals develop a sufficient level of immunity, the experts said.

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