Fifty cheetahs will be introduced to Kuno Palpur National Park (KNP) in Madhya Pradesh over the next five years. Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav made the announcement during the launch of an action plan for the introduction of the cheetah to India prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) at the 19th National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) meeting. He applauded that Project Cheetah will bring back this charismatic species that became extinct (in 1952) and conserve the rapidly endangered grassland and savanna ecosystem that the species inhabits.
SP Yadav, NTCA Member Secretary, said: “The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Reintroduction Group has painstakingly developed guidelines for conservation practitioners in a way that covers all aspects of a conservation transfer project. Conservation practitioners across India who will be involved in this project will find in the action plan an appropriate guide for the implementation of this project.
As there are only 30 individuals of the locally extinct Indian cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) subspecies in Iran, and they are critically endangered with a declining trend, the only one population that wildlife experts found viable was in southern Africa (Namibia, Botswana, South Africa). This region is home to the largest cheetah population, around 4,000 (around 66% of the world’s cheetah population). There will be no more cheetah supplementation problem in India in the future.
The KNP was approved as the first transfer site because it was found to be free of intrusion after all residents of 24 villages living inside the park were rehabilitated outside. All the prior arrangements regarding the required level of protection, prey and habitat were in place to house the cheetahs. According to the action plan, it is estimated that the KNP (748 km2) has a current capacity to maintain 21 cheetahs, and if the surrounding area (6,800 km2 covering Sheopur-Shivpuri open deciduous forest) is taken into account where the dispersers would colonize the landscape, then the number can skyrocket to 36 individuals.
YV Jhala, leader of the WII team that will witness the cheetah translocation, said NewsClick, “Efforts to establish other selected areas (Nauradehi and Gandhisagar protected areas) have started in the form of incentives for voluntary relocation of human settlements, prey supplementation and habitat management. by removing weeds and controlling livestock grazing. These additional protected areas will house the rest of the 50 cheetahs. “
Laurie Marker, Executive Director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, in a previous interview with the reporter by mail, said: “In general, cheetahs have good adaptability to survive in a variety of ecosystems. In a carefully executed step-by-step translocation process, they will adapt smoothly to the new environment. “
She also cautioned to avoid mistakes, such as leaving animals without any support and supervision after translocation in forest areas. “Selecting the wrong animals definitely leads to failure, regardless of other factors such as the merits of the location, the project or the local community,” she said.
All the concerns raised by Marker have been duly taken into account in the WII action plan.
As per the action plan, around 12-14 wild cheetahs (8-10 males and 4-6 females) which are ideal (the breeding age group which is genetically diverse, disease free, behaviorally healthy, not overly impressed with humans but tolerant, wary of predators, able to hunt wild prey and socially tolerant of each other) will be chosen as the founding stock to establish a new cheetah population in India.
The plan calls for vaccination of all nearby dogs to prevent the spread of rabies. Once selected and transported, the method of gently releasing animals into the KNP will be applied in which the cheetahs will be kept in predator-proof enclosures for a month or two with the availability of prey before being released into the the open KNP. This method would reduce their tendency to scatter long distances from their release site and help them adapt to the area.
All of the founding cheetahs would be fitted with satellite / GPS / VHF collars that had a data upload function to the ground. Radio telemetry would help monitor the movements, behavior, predation, conflict and mortality of newcomers on a daily basis. The collar of individuals will be reduced or eventually discontinued after the third generation of the cheetah population.
Marker also insisted on running the program with the support of local communities. Therefore, to ensure the long-term success of the project, the local communities living around the PNK are given confidence through various sensitizations. A local mascot named “Chintu Cheetah” and an associated slogan, “Mein tez dor kar aaonga, aur Kuno mein bas jaonga“(I will come and settle in Kuno soon) is becoming popular among the masses. People were also assured that any depredation of livestock by cheetahs would be immediately and effectively remedied.
Jhala believes there is negligible risk of human-animal conflict with the cheetah, unlike other species of big cats.
He said, “The cheetah is a shy animal that has never harmed or killed any human in wildlife history. So there is no threat to the inhabitants of the cheetahs. Local people will instead benefit from several. livelihood and wildlife tourism opportunities emerging after cheetah introduction to Kuno. “
Since the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve is only 60 km from Kuno, interaction of cheetahs with stray tigers will remain a possibility, while there is a good population of leopards that inhabit PNK.
Jhala further explained, “Cheetahs avoid confrontation, whether with humans or any other predator. any injury in a clash can lead to starvation and death. “
He said that thanks to the cheetah’s escape strategy, he can live comfortably with other big cats.
The action plan also mentioned that once a cheetah population is established in PNK, reintroduction of the lion or colonization by tigers would not be detrimental to cheetah persistence. He also recommended the prospect of harboring four big cats from India – tiger, lion, leopard and cheetah to coexist in Kuno as they have done in the past, after careful study.
Interaction between leopards and cheetahs will be closely watched in the park. Based on this research, management strategies to enable and promote coexistence or to manage the carnivore populations of the four feline species – cheetah, lion, tiger and leopard – will be decided for the future.
The cheetah conservation program will be a long-term affair. The action plan clearly states that the long-term Cheetah program (at least 25 years), involving financial, technical and administrative commitments, must be guaranteed by central and state governments to adhere to the action plan. Cheetah conservation is expected to become part of the mandate of the National Tiger Conservation Authority and under the Tiger Scheme project funded by the Department of the Environment.
At present, the Center will provide funds to the tune of Rs 91.65 crore during phase 1 of the works. States will bear the cost of staff salaries and overall management of the area.
According to the action plan, the short-term parameters for the success of the project will be the survival of 50% of the cheetahs introduced for the first year. Cheetah establishes home domains in the KNP. The species reproduces successfully in the wild. Some small cheetahs born in the wild survive for over a year and the income from cheetahs contributes to the livelihoods of the community.
The biggest hurdle right now is the delay caused by the pandemic. MK Ranjitsinh, the legendary environmentalist associated with the Cheetah Project, said: “It is important that the project progresses smoothly without any hindrance. The pandemic has become the biggest problem for us.
Madhya Pradesh’s forest and wildlife officials are also keeping their fingers crossed. Alok Kumar, Senior Chief Forestry Conservator (Wildlife) said NewsClick, “The construction of the enclosures, which had taken a bit of delay due to COVID-19, was completed on time. Like any other project, the Cheetah project may be delayed for a few months as the delegation of government officials, scientists and experts were unable to meet their South African counterparts for the same reason. However, we are all anxiously waiting for the cheetah to come to Kuno.