Wild life experts differ over role of radio collars in cheetahs’ deaths at Kuno National Park

The officials are considering bringing back all radio-collared free-ranging cheetahs to their enclosures for close examination and using drones to monitor their movements in the wild.

By Newsmeter Network  Published on  18 July 2023 1:37 PM GMT
Wild life experts differ over role of radio collars in cheetahs’ deaths at Kuno National Park.

Bhopal: The recent deaths of cheetahs at the Kuno National Park (KNP) in Madhya Pradesh have raised many questions. The officials are considering bringing back all radio-collared free-ranging cheetahs to their enclosures for close examination and using drones to monitor their movements in the wild.

The measures perhaps were proposed after some experts on the cheetah project said recent deaths of cheetahs could possibly be due to infection caused by radio collars though that is highly unusual.

The most recent death was on July 14. A male cheetah, Suraj, translocated from Africa to KNP, was found lying still in Palpur East Forest Range’s Masavani beat by a monitoring team. When they went closer, they found insects hovering over its neck, but it then rose and ran away. Later, he was found dead.

Another death was reported on July 11. The monitoring team found four-year-old Tejas dead in enclosure number 6. They found injury marks on the neck. So far, eight cheetahs have died since March this year, and the total count of felines at the national park has now dropped to 17.

Attempt to reintroduce life

Under Project Cheetah, a total of 20 radio-collared animals were imported from Namibia and South Africa to the KNP.

This project was part of an ambitious reintroduction program after the fastest land animal went extinct in India in 1952. The last cheetah died in India in the Koriya district in present-day Chhattisgarh in 1947, and the species was later declared extinct.

In September 2022, prime minister Narendra Modi released the first batch of eight Namibian cheetahs, five females and three males, at KNP in Madhya Pradesh. In February 2023, 12 cheetahs were flown in from South Africa and released into Kuno on February 18. By July, 12 cheetahs were released in free range.

After the mandatory quarantine period, the cheetahs were moved to larger acclimatisation enclosures. Currently, 11 cheetahs are in free-ranging conditions while five, including a cub born in India, are within a quarantine enclosure. Each free-ranging cheetah is being closely monitored by a dedicated team.

Deaths due to radio collars are speculations

The forest officials use satellite transmitters on the radio collars to track cheetahs’ movements. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) said media reports attributing the deaths of the big cats to factors such as radio collars were based on “speculation and hearsay, without scientific evidence.” It’s important to consider that in the two recent deaths of cheetahs, both had injuries on the necks.

Some experts playing a key role in the cheetah reintroduction project acknowledged that a male cheetah from South Africa died due to an infection from radio collar use.

African experts visiting KNP

An official who participated in a Cheetah Project Steering Committee meeting said, “All radio-collared cheetahs could be brought back to their enclosures for close monitoring. The official said another expert from South Africa arrived at the KNP on Tuesday, to provide essential insights on cheetah observation and treatment.

During the meeting, the potential use of drones connected to radio collars for monitoring the cheetahs over hilly terrain or in cold weather, including the monsoon season, was also discussed.

South African experts have also requested the Indian government to keep them informed about the investigation into cheetah deaths, planned additional measures and related developments.

One of them involved in the cheetah project told the committee that the loss of 50 per cent of the founder population within the first year of the animals being released in the wild falls is within acceptable standards.

The experts highlighted that no radio collar-related issue was encountered in South Africa and that innovative management actions will be necessary to prevent such mortalities. They emphasised the importance of exchanging southern African and Indian metapopulations to ensure long-term genetic and demographic viability.

Deaths could be due to septicemia

There are some experts that claim that the collars might be responsible for the deaths. Rajesh Gopal, the head of the Cheetah Project Steering Committee, had told that the reason for the cheetahs’ deaths could be septicemia from radio collar use.

“It is highly unusual. It is a cause for concern and we have directed (the Madhya Pradesh forest department staff) to check all the cheetahs,” he said.

South African cheetah metapopulation expert Vincent van der Merwe said extremely wet conditions are causing the radio collars to create an infection and possibly, that is the reason behind the cheetahs’ deaths.

Collars in use for 25 years

According to the experts, using collars in wildlife conservation has been for around 25 years in India. But they have never come across such an incident. “We have good, smart collars available these days. Still, if such an incident takes place, we will have to bring it to the notice of the manufacturers,” said Rajesh Gopal.

Cheetahs to remain in Kuno

According to the ministry, the cheetah project is still in progress, and it would be premature to judge its success or failure within a year.

They said several steps have been planned to support the cheetah project, including the establishment of a Cheetah Research Centre with facilities for rescue, rehabilitation and capacity building. More forest areas will be brought under the administrative control of the KNP for landscape-level management.

Additional frontline staff will be deployed, and a Cheetah Protection Force will be set up, it said, adding that a second home for cheetahs is envisioned in the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.

Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav stated that the cheetahs will continue to remain in the KNP in Madhya Pradesh and asserted that the project will be successful. “We are in touch with experts, including international experts. The cheetahs will not be relocated and will remain in Kuno only,” the minister said.

Inputs from PTI

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