Bureaucracy, insufficient science clouds India’s cheetah reintroduction project
India’s once-ubiquitous cheetahs went extinct in 1952 due to hunting and deforestation. But, in 2022, the government decided to bring them back.
Eight Namibian cheetahs were transported to Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh in 2022. In early 2023, 12 more were brought in from South Africa to join them. “The animals sent from Namibia were all healthy animals,” said Laurie Marker, executive director of Namibia’s Cheetah Conservation Fund. The cheetahs flown in from South Africa “were relaxed enough that they slept most of the flight,” she added.
On January 16th, government officials confirmed the death of another cheetah, taking the death toll to ten, involving seven imported adults and three Indian-born cubs. These deaths, due to a myriad of health issues such as heat strokes and infections, have led experts to question the process behind this translocation.
Ullas Karanth, director emeritus of the Centre for Wildlife Studies, a private research organization in India, is one of many conservation experts who say that the project has been flawed since its conception in 2010. He criticized consecutive government cabinets for conducting their work in an unscientific and unprofessional way and suggested that the government should have focused on restoring other species in India that are at risk of extinction.
“Cheetahs arriving by plane does not make it a restoration project,” he asserted.
In January 2022, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), an autonomous body under the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), drafted its action plan for reintroducing cheetahs to India, which aimed to establish a founding population of cheetahs, extend their range and contribute to global conservation efforts.
At first glance, it seemed like a good idea.
“By 2050, we are predicted to lose 40 percent of the terrestrial land mammals,” Marker said. “Predators are one of the biggest losses because of habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict. ”
However, other experts doubted the motivations behind the reintroduction before it had started, including ecologist Ghazala Shahabuddin. She wrote in a 2019 book chapter that the decision was “motivated by political symbolism and had limited grounding in ecological sciences.” For example, the day when the cheetahs arrived coincided with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 72nd birthday.
After the deaths of the three cheetah cubs, the MoEF&CC was forced to acknowledge the challenges they have faced in a press release dated May 2023. To successfully execute the “first intercontinental reintroduction of a wild, large carnivore species” which had “no comparable historical precedent,” they brought some of the best experts around the world to the Cheetah Project Steering Committee of the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
Adrian Tordiffe, a veterinary wildlife specialist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Paraclinical Sciences at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, was a member of the consulting panel for the Committee, along with Marker. His involvement in the project began earlier in 2020 when he was approached by ecologist Y.V. Jhala, a former dean of the WII and the first author of the WII Action Plan.
“In the beginning, they were very receptive, the project of this scale is immensely difficult to pull off, simply because there are conservation and political aspects to it,” he said, referring to the attitude of Indian officials.
But as the project progressed, Tordiffe felt that even he was kept at a shoulder’s distance by the government.
“There was a delay in getting information to me,” Tordiffe said. “The first cheetah died on Tuesday, and it took until the second cheetah had died before I even received a video of the [first] animal that had died.”
He and other members were not invited to a single meeting, prompting him to write a letter to the Indian Supreme Court to express his frustration. “It appeared that it was merely for show.”
So, how exactly did the cheetahs die?
Karanth explained that reintroduction projects involving large carnivores are inherently risky because the apex predators need an extensive suitable habitat and an abundant wild prey base. Only 5% of cheetahs survive from birth to breeding age, a low survival rate. This puts them more at risk compared to other large cats. “They are timid cats which are dominated by bigger predators like lions, leopards, and hyenas and suffer high mortalities,” he said.
Addressing the Indian Parliament in October 2023, the MoEF&CC Minister of State Ashwini Kumar Choubey stated that the cheetahs died for a litany of reasons such as cardiopulmonary failure, traumatic shock, and chronic renal failure, while the three cubs died due to a heat stroke. In an interview with Indiaspend in June 2023, Tordiffe attributed some of these deaths to stress, unpredicted isolated events, and malnutrition.
“Cheetahs are very delicate animals,” Marker said. She said they can go into renal failure easily, especially when they are dehydrated or go without food for a long time.
In addition, experts said that at least two of these deaths were due to septicemia, where the cheetahs’ blood became poisoned by bacteria. SP Yadav, a senior official at the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, explained that these South African cheetahs were relocated from the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are flipped; the animals thus developed thicker coats in preparation for the winter season when it was monsoon season in India. The thicker coats stayed wetter for longer, and the animals developed skin infections. Much of the controversy was focused on the radio collars attached to the cheetahs’ necks, but both Marker and Tordiffe now consider this to be at best a secondary cause.
In response, when the Indian government announced on the eve of the project’s anniversary that more cheetahs would be introduced into Kuno National Park, Yadav said that preference would be given to those that do not develop thicker coats. Later that month, Yadav added in an interview with the local environmental magazine Down to Earth that the cheetahs would be translocated only from South Africa but not Namibia. In the same interview, Tordiffe suspected that the same communication and transparency issues that he has faced, in addition to cost factors, may have played a part.
“The Indian government has their plans, we just advise the governments.” Marker conceded to The Xylom.
And yet, these fixable issues appear to be the least of the problems when it comes to the long-term viability of the reintroduction project.
The WII’s 2022 Action Plan explained that Kuno National Park was picked from a total of 10 surveyed sites because of its suitability of habitat and prey base. Estimating based on Kuno’s existing prey base, the WII claimed that the park can currently sustain 21 cheetahs assuming villages are relocated, and up to 36 cheetahs in the future as they disperse along the landscape.
There are two flaws to this assumption. The first is the availability of prey, which has been in steady decline: In an interview last March, Jhala, the first author of the WII Action Plan, raised concerns that the availability of chital, the cheetah’s main prey, has plummeted to one-third of the levels compared to just less than a decade ago.
“This, at the most, would sustain 15 animals, and five ought to have been shifted elsewhere,” he told The Hindu.
That same week, The Indian Express reported Jhala’s contract was cut short after an unnamed colleague described that he “rubbed the establishment the wrong way” by refusing to compromise on the science.
“Once he was forced out of the project, things changed quite a bit,” Tordiffe observed.
In addition, local media has reported multiple incidents of poachers being caught in the act in recent years. Tordiffe himself recalled hearing gunshots from hunters while he and his colleagues were at Kuno. The effects of poachers are two-fold: they hunt both the cheetahs and their prey.
Second, the mathematical modeling rests on the relocation of villages in the surrounding area. The WII Action Plan made one passing mention of the ongoing “incentivized voluntary relocation” of Bagcha village to make space for the cheetahs in the first phase of the project. What it omitted was the fact that Bagcha was home to 556 Sahariya Adivasis, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. The People’s Archive of Rural India reported that these Adivasis, who relied on the forest for resources, were only paid a fee of about $18,000 to relocate and made to sign declarations that they were not forced to leave, despite multiple residents on the record claiming otherwise.
To create the potential habitat for 36 cheetahs as modeled by the WII Action Plan, an additional 169 villages would need to be cleared out. Ethical concerns and financial costs notwithstanding, even during the process of relocation, there is a high potential for human-cheetah conflict.
“Cheetah studies in Africa show even in the best habitats, cheetahs occur at low densities of less than one cheetah per 100 square kilometers,” Karanth said. He claimed that fellow ecologists agree that an area of over 10,000 square kilometers with an adequate prey base and free of major threats including other predators has to be created first before cheetahs can be restored.
“Yet the forest bureaucracy of NTCA and its obedient scientists at the WII came up with a plan to establish a wild population of 36 cheetahs in and around the tiny 800-square kilometer Kuno park, relying on a deeply flawed population dynamics model,” Karanth said.
“Our government scientists, the forest bureaucracy, and politicians above them who listen to and fund them, are all responsible for this unfolding disaster.”
Karanth noted that similar restoration efforts are needed for many other species including the Banteng, the one-horned rhino, the Sumatran Rhino, the Javan Rhino, and the brow-antlered deer. All of these species have either gone extinct in India or suffered range collapses. But just like reintroducing cheetahs, any such plans depend on sufficient good science and real implementation capacity.
“Everyone forgets the goal was to establish a wild population of cheetahs, surviving on natural prey they hunted, establishing territories and then reproducing in the wild and hopefully increasing in numbers over time,” Karanth said. “None of that happened at all.”
Despite past interviews where he has at times expressed a more positive and cautious tone, as cheetah deaths have piled up and the reintroduction plans go awry, Tordiffe has become more pessimistic about the future of the program.
“At this stage, I have given up on actually being involved in the project at all, not being consulted on any aspect of the project now,” he said.