New Delhi: Younger cheetahs that are habituated to management vehicles and human presence are preferred candidates for relocation to India, international experts involved in Project Cheetah have told the government based on the lessons learnt from the initial experience in Madhya Pradesh's Kuno National Park.
In a status report submitted to the government recently, the experts said these attributes enable easier monitoring of health-related issues, simplify stress-free veterinary and management intervention, and enhance tourism value.
Six of the 20 adult cheetahs relocated to Kuno from Africa have died since March this year. On Wednesday, one of the female cheetahs -- Dhatri (Tbilisi) -- was found dead. A post-mortem is being conducted to determine the cause of death. 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.
Kuno, where two batches of cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa have been introduced, is set to open for tourism and these qualities in cheetahs can enhance the park's appeal to visitors, they said.
They emphasized that young adult cheetahs are more adaptable to their new environments and have higher survival rates compared to older cheetahs. Younger males display "lower aggression" towards other cheetahs, reducing the risk of intraspecific competition mortality, commonly known as cheetah infighting.
Considering the costs associated with relocating cheetahs to India, the experts highlighted that younger cheetahs have a longer life expectancy post-release, offering higher conservation value and breeding potential.
They emphasized that although the cheetah mortalities recorded at Kuno National Park are unfortunate and have attracted negative media attention, they are within the normal parameters for wild cheetah reintroduction.
The experts drew the government's attention to the initial difficulties faced during cheetah reintroduction attempts in South Africa, where nine out of 10 attempts failed. These experiences led to the establishment of best practices for wild cheetah reintroduction and management.
They said the first litters with realistic prospects of survival to adulthood are likely to be born in 2024. However, cheetah cub mortality is expected to be high initially as reintroduced female cheetahs adapt to the different birthing intervals in Asia.
The report also underscored the importance of "supermoms" -- highly successful, fit, and fertile female cheetahs that sustain wild cheetah populations in Southern Africa. Out of the seven wild females relocated to India, only one is likely to be a "supermom", the experts said.
They emphasized that the relocation of at least 50 more founder cheetahs from the South African metapopulation over the next decade will be crucial for stabilizing the Indian population.
Continuous swaps between the Southern African and Indian metapopulations will also be necessary for long-term genetic and demographic viability. The experts strongly advised the Indian authorities to identify alternative sites for reintroduction, suggesting that Kuno may be a sink reserve.
Sink reserves are habitats that have limited resources or environmental conditions that are less favorable for the survival or reproduction of a species. Sink reserves are reliant on dispersing animals from source reserves -- habitats that provide optimal conditions for population growth and reproduction of a particular species -- to maintain their population numbers.
The experts recommended having at least two additional reintroduction sites available by the end of 2024, with an area of above 50 square kilometres and preferably fenced as unfenced systems worldwide have not seen successful cheetah reintroduction.
Thick coats lead to infections
According to the international experts involved in Project Cheetah, 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.
In a report to the government, they suggested interventions such as shaving off the winter coats to deal with fatal infections and prevent any more deaths.
The experts said that the thicker coats, high parasite load, and moisture create a perfect recipe for dermatitis with fly strike on top of it compounding the infection and compromising the skin's integrity. Infections can spread and the contaminated fluids can run down the spine when the cheetahs sit up on their haunches.
Concerns over Cheetah project
Union environment ministry officials had earlier rejected the idea of having fenced reserves, saying it goes against the basic tenets of wildlife conservation. In a letter written to the Supreme Court last month, the international experts expressed serious concerns about the management of the project.
The experts expressed frustration that they were not being given timely information and were excluded from decision-making processes. They claimed that their involvement has been minimized since a key project leader, Y V Jhala, retired.
Some of the cheetah deaths could have been prevented with better monitoring and timely veterinary care, they had told the apex court.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) told the Supreme Court that there is no reason to believe that cheetah deaths were caused by any inherent unsuitability at Kuno.
According to the NTCA, cheetahs, in general, have low survival rates, with only 50 percent of adult cheetahs surviving even in non-introduced populations. For introduced populations, the survival rates are even lower.
While the mortalities are troubling, the NTCA assured that they are not unduly alarming.
Sharing its plans for the introduction of cheetahs in other areas with the apex court, the NTCA said it is preparing Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh for this purpose. On the Mukundra Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, the NTCA said it is not suitable for accommodating cheetahs at the moment.
The reserve witnessed the deaths of five tigers in 2020 within a short period with some of them attributed to tick and parasitic infections.
The NTCA expressed concerns about the low prey density and a large number of feral cattle carrying a significant amount of parasitic load, which could pose challenges to the survival of cheetahs at Mukundra.
Inputs from PTI