Plan to return cheetahs to India under fire after six die within month
India is now under fire for its plans to reintroduce cheetahs, considered a fragile animal, into the country.
The contentious reintroduction of cheetahs into the wild has suffered a serious setback when three adults and three cubs died in the last eight months.
The fatalities have prompted criticism of Project Cheetah, a £4.8 million international project that sent 20 animals from Africa to India's Kuno National Park early this year. Some conservationists claim that not enough space was set aside for cheetahs, while others claim that the project was built up too quickly.
However, project scientists argued that many fatalities were to be expected at the outset of the research and predicted that the death toll would soon settle. “If you are going to reintroduce an animal to the wild, you have to do it very carefully,” said Professor Sarah Durant, of the Zoological Society of London, adding “And it is clear that things are not going well. The program seems rushed.”
A fragile animal
Cheetahs are the world's fastest land mammals, capable of reaching speeds of up to 100 km per hour. There are five subspecies, and all have seen significant population declines due to climate change, human hunting, and habitat destruction.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, surviving populations of East African, South African, and Northeast African cheetahs are currently fragile. The other two are highly endangered: the Northwest African cheetah and the Asiatic cheetah.
The Asiatic subspecies of cheetahs became extinct in India in past century, with the last reported local animals being shot by Maharajah Ramanuj Singh Deo in 1947. This cheetah is now only found in Iran.
In comparison, there are approximately 6,500 African cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus), and there have been successes in recovering numbers in South African semi-managed wildlife reserves.
After eradicating its cheetahs, India began efforts to re-establish a population by utilizing Southern African cheetahs. However, the Indian Supreme Court first stopped these actions, arguing that because it was not a native species, its introduction violated international conservation standards.
Eight cheetahs from Namibia
The court's decision was overturned in 2020, and Project Cheetah was launched with great fanfare, including assistance from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The first animals arrived in Kuno last September: eight cheetahs transferred from Namibia, followed by 12 more from South Africa in February.
However, three of the Kuno cheetahs and three newborn cubs died by late May of this year. Two adults died of organ failure, and a third died during a violent mating session. The cause of the cubs' deaths is unknown at this time. While cubs in the wild have a low survival rate due to lion and hyena predation, those born in protected reserves have a good survival rate.
According to Adrian Tordiffe, a veterinarian at South Africa's University of Pretoria and a consultant for the project, the deaths of the three adults were not surprising given the high stress of transfer. "The fact that we had multiple deaths in a short period is not unusual in that it is a high-risk period."