Wildlife & Biodiversity

Kuno needs at least 50 cheetahs before wild cat population stabilises, expert tells central panel

More deaths of wild cats likely before year end; innovative actions to manage radio collar issues needed

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Wednesday 19 July 2023
Five-year-old Sasha was brought to Kuno National Park from Namibia. She died due to kidney ailments in March. Photo: Cheetah Conservation Fund__

Till now, eight translocated cheetahs at Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park (KNP) have died. However, an expert has told the Centre that the reintroduction project is extremely complex and at least 50 founder cheetahs, who will establish the population of the wild cats in India, will be required before the number stabilises.

A Cheetah Project Steering Committee was constituted by the central government’s National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) to review the progress of the reintroduction project and monitor and advice on it. Cheetah expert Vincent van der Merwe shared his observations and perspective with the panel on July 17, 2023.

Read more: Cheetah deaths, including that of cubs, in Kuno could have been avoided, say experts

“We anticipate that at least 50 founder cheetahs will be required before the Indian population stabilises. Thereafter, further swaps between the Southern African and Indian metapopulations will be required to ensure genetic and demographic viability in the long term,” the expert told the panel.

Nine of the first 10 reintroduction attempts in South Africa failed, Merwe told the panel. “It took more than 200 wild cheetahs during these initial reintroduction attempts to establish best practices with regards to wild cheetah introduction and management,” he said.

The manager of The Metapopulation Initiative played a crucial role in reintroducing the cheetahs in India.

The difficult lessons learnt from those reintroduction experiences, such as managing metapopulation and fencing protected areas to support large carnivores has helped shape conservation approaches. It helped eventually facilitate the only growing wild cheetah populations in the world, Merwe added.

“Regardless, we still make mistakes, as was evident in our support for giving Vayu and Agni temporary access to Daksha within the same large enclosure,” he said.

While five adults and three cubs have been lost so far, more of the wild cats could be lost before the year end, he said. “A loss of 50 per cent of the founder population in the first year post-release is standard and the losses would continue the following year post release,” Merwe told the panel.

Read more: She is a fighter: For now, sole survivor of cheetah litter born in India is healthy, playful and curious

The first litters with real prospects of survival that could potentially reach adulthood are expected to be born in 2024, he said.

“Although wild cheetahs can breed year-round, we observe birthing peaks with the first litters born in late summer/early autumn. If these litters are lost, females give birth to replacement litters in the late winter/ early spring,” he explained.

Female cheetahs in India must still adapt to the different seasons and establish their own preferred birthing intervals. Cub mortality will likely be high in the early years as most of the females will be first time mothers in India and are known to be notoriously bad at raising cubs, the wildlife expert said.

However, looking at the positive side, there has not been a single cheetah death due to interspecific competition with leopards, snaring or immobilisation complications, which is a significant sign, Merwe added.

He also brought up the death of cheetahs due to septicemia — blood poisoning by bacteria — which was a result of the radio collars worn around their necks in the prevailing wet conditions.

Read more: Please give Project Cheetah some time: Divyabhanusinh

“The recent collar issues in Kuno are something that we have not observed in Africa. This will require innovative management actions to prevent further mortality,” he told the committee.

Further genetic and demographic supplementation from Africa is pivotal to the success of Project Cheetah, Merwe wrote in his concluding notes.

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