Business News/ News / India/  Worst still to come, project expert on cheetah deaths at Kuno National Park

The death of two more cheetahs in the Kuno National Park has raised concerns about the future of Project Cheetah in India. Things will not stop here and the reintroduction project will see even higher mortality in the next few months, said South African Wildlife expert Vincent van der Merwe.

There will be more death of cheetahs in the coming time as they try to establish territories and come face to face with leopards and tigers at the Kuno National Park, Vincent van der Merwe told PTI on Thursday.

Van der Merwe was closely involved in India's cheetah reintroduction project. Till now, cheetah deaths have been within an acceptable range, however, it was not expected of males to koll a South African female cheetah during courtship

"There has never been a successful reintroduction (of cheetahs) into an unfenced reserve in recorded history. It has been attempted 15 times in Africa and it failed every time. We are not advocating that India must fence all of its cheetah reserves, we are saying that just fence two or three and create source reserves to top up sink reserves," Van der Merwe told PTI.

How can India save cheetahs in Kuno?

According to Van der Merwe, the best way to protect cheetahs in the current scenario would be to transfer at least three or four cheetahs to Mukundra Hills and let them breed up there.

"Mukundra Hills is fully fenced. We know that cheetahs will do very well there. The only problem is that it's not fully stocked at the moment. So you'll have to bring in some black buck and chinkara. And when the fencing is completed at Nauradehi and Gandhisagar, we will have three fenced reserves and then we are winning," he said.

Going by the suggestion of Van der Merwe, it would be important for the government to fence some of its cheetah reserves. Fencing is a good way to reduce human-wildlife conflict and pressures of predation or poaching on endangered species.

He also added that sources reserves are habitats that ensure optimal conditions for the population growth and reproduction of a particular species.

These areas contain highly rich resources, suitable habitats, and favourable environmental conditions. They can produce a surplus of individuals, which can later extend to other areas. Sink reserves are referred to the habitat with limited resources, unfavourable environmental conditions reducing the chances of survival.

Earlier, Supreme Court and other experts, have expressed concerns over the lack of space and support at Kuno Park and suggested their relocation to other sanctuaries.

However, Madhya Pradesh Forest Department had sent a written request to the National Tiger Conservation Authority to provide an ‘alternative’ site for the cheetahs at Kuno.

The conservationist presaged more cheetah deaths outside of the fenced enclosures in the next few months.

"That's where the real dangers lie. That's where you can expect mortality due to hunting injury. The cheetahs, of course, will continue to establish territories and fight with each other and kill each other for territories and for access to females. They're going to encounter leopards. There are now tigers moving around in Kuno. The worst mortalities are still to come," he said.

Death of cheetahs after the relocation is normal

He also assured that the death of three adults and three cubs is completely normal and within mortality rates witnessed during such reintroduction programs.

"There seems to be a frenzy in India, we've lost four cheetahs and the project is failing. That is not true. Cheetahs naturally have high mortality rates. And we observed these same mortality rates in Africa when we reintroduced them into unfenced systems," he said.

He said the Namibian female cheetah (Shasha) was compromised (she was suffering from a kidney infection) before she even got to India and the people on the ground don't know what killed the second cheetah (Uday).

"We really don't know what killed that South African cheetah, when he was opened up and examined, he was found to be perfectly healthy. So we don't know what happened there. And then the two males killing the female was just extremely unfortunate," he said.

On the males killing the female cheetah, Van der Merwe said such cases are rare but can occur.

"We've had a whole lot of male and female cheetahs interacting with each other in the bomas and the large enclosures at Kuno. And initially, it was very successful. There were three matings observed between the Namibian cheetahs.

He also added that there are chances that the mortality rate will rise to 50 per cent in the first year.

"We anticipate a 50 per cent mortality in the first year, we know that only 10 are going to survive the initial release period. There's going to be more than enough prey for them.

"Also, the Indian authorities are stocking Kuno. They are bringing cheetals and spotted deer. So, I'm not worried about the carrying capacity," said Van der Merwe.

Responding to concerns over some cheetahs being kept in enclosures for longer durations, he said all the cats should be released into the wild immediately.

(With inputs from PTI)

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Updated: 26 May 2023, 06:55 AM IST
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