On September 17, India woke up to welcome African cheetahs that flew 11 hours non-stop from Namibia in a customised aircraft. A forest patch in central India was at the heart of action in preparation for the return of the fastest land mammal to the South Asian nation.
The air around Sesaipura forest guest house near Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh in central India hung heavy with excitement and nerves. The guest house is located near the bank of the Kuno river which lends the protected area its name.
A number of visitors were present there – forest officials from the state capital Bhopal and conservation experts from Namibia, a country in southern Africa. They gathered to execute the introduction of cheetahs in India, 70 years after they were declared extinct in the country.
Amid all the excitement surrounding our new feline friends, we answer questions on their survival prospects, competing predators, and much more.
Do the cheetahs that have been re-introduced belong to the same subspecies that went extinct in India?
No, not really. The cheetahs introduced in India are not the Asiatic subspecies (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) that went extinct; they are the African subspecies (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus).
Okay, if the cheetahs are an African subspecies, how will they adapt?
Two experts will be located in Kuno for the next two to three months to ensure the spotted cats adapt well to the new environment and will look after their health needs. They are Barthélémy Balli and Elia Muandi of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, an international non-profit organisation dedicated to saving the cheetah in the wild. Both arrived in Kuno in July after the two countries’ governments signed a memorandum of understanding on wildlife conservation and sustainable biodiversity utilisation in that month.
How long has the bring-back-cheetah project been in the making? And are more cheetahs on the way?
Discussions to bring the cheetah back to India were initiated in 2009 by the Wildlife Trust of India. The introduction is parked under the Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India. Over five years, more than 50 cheetahs from South Africa and Namibia will be introduced in various Indian national parks including Kuno. As much as Rs 38.70 crore under the ongoing centrally sponsored scheme of Project Tiger has been allocated to the cheetah introduction project for the years 2021-22 to 2025-26. The deal with South Africa is yet to be inked.
Okay, so more cheetahs are on their way. But what does the first batch that just landed look like?
There are eight vaccinated, radio-collared cheetahs – three males and five females – in Namibia’s first batch that arrived on September 17. All the cheetahs fall in the two to five year age bracket, making them fit to reproduce in India. They undertook an 11-hour journey from Windhoek in Namibia to Gwalior in India and were then transported to Kuno by helicopter.
The first batch looks cool and young alright! But what does their brand-new forest look like?
According to the Indian government, the 748 sq km Kuno National Park devoid of human settlements forms part of the Sheopur-Shivpuri deciduous open forest landscape and is estimated to have a capacity to sustain 21 cheetahs. Kuno National Park already has the required level of protection, prey, and habitat to house the cheetahs, says the action plan. Forty kilometres from the Sesaipura forest guest house, Madhya Pradesh Forest Department built a five square km enclosure with seven compartments to house the cheetahs for soft release.
Really hope they find their new home safe…
Not to worry, as the cheetah conservationists from Africa talked about earlier, and the ground staff of the forest department, have been working round the clock to ensure smooth translocation from Namibia and a safe stay for the cheetahs. Heavy rains had flooded all small and big streams, adding difficulties to the preparations. Muddy roads dotted with fallen trees due to the heavy downpour had also rendered several roads inaccessible, leaving only one way to enter the national park.
Forest officials also had to tackle leopard movement inside the enclosure. Two elephants were brought from Satpura tiger reserve to Kuno to trace the leopards in the enclosure. With the help of elephants, forest officials successfully captured five leopards and shifted them to the nearest Madhav National Park in Shivpuri. However, one leopard remains untraceable.
Do competing predators pose a challenge to the survival of cheetahs in Kuno?
Well, yes. “The leopard density at Kuno is particularly high. Competing predators in Kuno National Park include leopards, wolves, sloth bears and striped hyena,” said Vincent van der Merwe, manager of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s metapopulation initiative, while talking to Mongabay-India. “These predators can jeopardise cheetah survival through the killing of their young, whilst leopards are known to kill adult cheetahs on occasion,” he added.
Indian wildlife biologist and conservation scientist Ravi Chellam echoes van der Merwe. “I expect cheetahs to face challenges with other carnivores, especially leopards, wolves, sloth bears and the occasional tiger. The presence of dogs in the larger landscape also poses risks,” said Chellam, who is also the CEO of Metastring Foundation and Coordinator of Biodiversity Collaborative.
Will the cheetahs find enough food in their new home?
Oh yes. The forest department has herded 250 chitals as prey into the enclosure in Kuno, according to media reports. “Cheetahs specialise in hunting small to medium-sized prey items, with 89% of their kills within the 14-135 kg weight range. Kuno supports sufficient prey animals that fall into this weight range,” said van der Merwe.
That’s a lot of prey for food but will the cheetahs really be able to hunt them down?
There is apprehension about the cheetah’s ability to hunt the chitals as the latter are not found in Africa. African cheetahs are used to hunting different prey such as gazelles (especially Thomson’s gazelles), impalas and other small to medium-sized antelopes, hares, birds and rodents.
“I expect it to be especially challenging for the cheetahs to hunt chital deer, which is a prey type (deer) that they are not used to in Africa. With any long-distance movement of animals (in this case, trans-continental), the cheetahs will find it challenging just to settle down, get used to the new location and their unfenced existence,” said Chellam.
Okay, their prey looks hard enough to catch but what really poses the biggest challenge for cheetahs?
Chellam feels that the “biggest challenge” is the size of the habitat. “Cheetahs exist in very low densities of about 1/100 sq km. For a viable population to establish itself, it will require at least 5000 sq km of prey-rich habitat, which currently India does not have,” he said.
Whoa, that looks tough. Are there any other concerns about our newly arrived guests?
Yes, concerns have also been raised over the suitability of the African subspecies to Indian habitats, originally home to the Asiatic subspecies.
Scientists at CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology published a research paper on the genetics of the extinct Indian cheetah. The research was published in the Scientific Reports journal in 2020.
“It is probable that the level of genetic differentiation between African cheetah subspecies and the Asiatic cheetah is not sufficiently great as to genetically impact the ability of African cheetah to survive in India,” the authors write in the paper.
“Genetic modelling confirms that the severe population bottleneck of African cheetah is many thousands of years old, suggesting that low diversity has not precluded the survival of cheetah over vast, and ecologically variable, African regions over that period,” adds the paper.
Researchers suggest, “While we see no genetic reason precluding re-introduction, consideration of local environments and ecology, animal behaviour, anthropogenic pressures, the likelihood of success, and the probable impact on other potentially endangered species is, of course, significant.”
Has there been a cheetah reintroduction elsewhere too?
Yes, seven cheetahs were successfully reintroduced from South Africa to Malawi in the African continent in 2017. This reintroduction is considered successful as all cheetahs showed release site fidelity, and all females birthed their first litter within four months of release, according to a Cambridge University Press research paper assessing the success of Malawi reintroduction. “Within two years of reintroduction, the newly established population consisted of 14 cheetahs, with demographic attributes similar to those recorded in the source populations,” the paper added.
So are there any lessons from the successful cheetah reintroduction in Malawi?
Yup, the reintroductions into Malawi were less challenging as both reintroduction sites were fully fenced.
“We anticipate challenges in India initially. However, this is a long-term project. Fencing is very important for this kind of project. In South Africa and Malawi, fencing proved to be a valuable tool in eliminating ranging behaviour in South Africa and Malawi, allowing for population growth. There have been no successful cheetah reintroductions into unfenced systems,” said van der Merwe.
What happens if the big cats come in touch with local communities?
Van der Merwe said that the absence of fencing in Kuno may result in the interaction of cheetahs with local communities as the big cats are likely to roam beyond Kuno’s core area post-release. He suggests an effectively implemented compensation scheme for livestock losses can be considered.
The forest department has been running a campaign named ‘Chintu Cheetah’ to spread public awareness in the local communities. The Regional Museum of Natural History has been conducting activities such as lectures and presentations on cheetahs in schools neighbouring Kuno National Park.
Can predators like cheetahs really multiply near human settlements?
“There are many successful examples in India where the forest department has managed to grow a large predator population near a human settlement. India has a compensation scheme for livestock losses or does it have something to do with the philosophical outlook on life that people in India have?” Van der Merwe wondered.
He added, “They (Indians) subscribe to eastern religions, primarily Hinduism, which advocate custodianship of nature, with humans forming part of the greater system. In Africa, we subscribe mainly to the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), which advocate human dominion over nature. The Abrahamic religions prescribe an anthropocentric (human-centric) worldview, with human dominion over nature (the land must be tilled and humans must procreate). It makes co-existence difficult to achieve.” (Mongabay)