Wildlife & Biodiversity

No more cheetahs from Namibia, next batch of wild cats only from South Africa

Outspoken criticism of reintroduction project’s management may be behind decision, alleges member of steering committee

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Monday 25 September 2023
Sasha was brought from Namibia on September 17, 2022 and died on March 27, 2023. Photo: Cheetah Conservation Fund__

South Africa may be the only country that would send cheetahs to India in the future for its cheetah reintroduction project. The project flagged off on September 17, 2022 with 20 cheetahs arriving from South Africa and Namibia.

So far, 14 of those cheetahs and a female cub have survived in India’s Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh. The project witnessed a backlash over the deaths of cheetahs due to poor health and criticism of the management team.

Responding to queries from Down To Earth (DTE), SP Yadav, additional director general of forests at the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and head of the project cheetah said, “We are planning to bring 12 to 14 cheetahs from South Africa after careful selection, taking due care of health parameters and adaptability in the Indian habitat.”

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

“At this stage, we are planning for translocation from South Africa only and not Namibia,” he added.

Future cheetahs would be carefully selected, said Yadav. Some of the cheetahs did not grow winter coat and thereby saved themselves from infection that caused deaths of some of the wild animals.

Cheetahs Tejas and Suraj died of septicaemia in July 2023. The condition was caused by the wet conditions in the rains and humidity, which caused infection among the animals.

The next batch of cheetahs would likely not have the ability to grow winter coat, said Yadav. The project would also focus on bringing over more fertile female cheetahs for breeding. “Ideally, we would like to see all female cheetahs have a litter,” he said.

A report, Status of South African and Namibian cheetahs in Kuno National Park, India published in July 2023 stated the South African cheetah population was sustained by “small number of highly successful, fit and fertile females”.

Read more: Mismanagement, negligence and political pressure are killing Kuno cheetahs

“They are called supermoms and typically raise more than ten cubs to independence age in their lifetimes, effectively sustaining wild cheetah populations and compensating for the low survival rate of the species,” it mentioned.

Cheetah cubs born on Indian soil will be able to adapt better to Indian weather conditions and understand how the cheetah population behaves in geographic conditions, said Yadav.

The new batch of cheetahs will likely find a new home at Gandhi Sagar Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh and preparations for the same are underway. The site is likely to get ready by end of the year.

However, experts from Namibia fear that their outspoken criticism may be the reason that cheetahs from the country are not brought to India.

Adrian Tordiffe, veterinarian and member of steering committee, claimed that since he raised concerns about cheetah management with the Supreme Court of India, the panel had not included him in any meetings.

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

The steering committee is a group of experts from India and South Africa who coordinate and work towards making the reintroduction a success by sharing knowledge and experience.

“There has been no communication with me for over two months now. The chair of the steering committee has not responded to my letter to him,” he told DTE.

But Namibia may not have more cheetahs to send either, he further said. “Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) may also have been cut out from communication and I am not sure that they would be willing to send more cheetahs to India. South Africa, however, still has more than enough cheetahs to send,” he added.

Repeated attempts to reach Laurie Marker, director of CCF, did not evoke any response or comments.

“I am just hoping that the cheetahs are resilient enough to survive and thrive. I still hope the project succeeds,” Tordiffe said.

Read more: Cheetah reintroduction ‘highly complex’, more sites needed as reserves, expert says

Meanwhile, regarding the current status of cheetahs at KNP, Yadav said, “Most of the cheetahs have been released to the larger acclimatisation enclosures after due health checkups, where they will be hunting their natural prey. After monitoring sometime and with the onset of cold weather, they will be again released in the wild.”

About potential replacement of radio collars, Yadav said, “There were no issues with the old radio collars. The animals were translocated with radio collars already fitted from Namibia and South Africa. Collars will be changed as their battery life is limited.”

Regarding the talks of a cheetah safari being opened for the public, Yadav said the project is still in nascent stages of planning. “An area of 150 to 200 hectares is being acquired for it. It requires elaborate planning, layout exercise, approval from the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) and other formal procedures,” he said.

The animals for safari will be sourced from zoos or captivity for safari purpose as per the guidelines of the CZA and the entire process is expected to take approximately one year at the least, Yadav said.

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