International experts involved in Project Cheetah have told the government, based on lessons learned from early experience in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park, that young cheetahs accustomed to vehicle handling and human presence are preferred candidates for relocation to India.
In a recent status report submitted to the government, experts emphasized that young cheetahs are better adapted to their new environment and have a higher survival rate than older cheetahs. Younger males display “less aggression” towards other cheetahs, thereby reducing the risk of intraspecific competition mortality, commonly known as cheetah fighting. In considering the costs associated with relocating cheetahs to India, experts highlighted that young cheetahs have a long life expectancy after release, which confers high conservation value and reproductive potential.
Experts said that young cheetahs are “habituated to handling vehicles and humans on foot”, allowing easy monitoring of health issues, stress-free veterinary medicine and simplified management interventions, which some cheetahs have radio collars. This is important given the recent cases of -induced infection. In addition, they will increase tourism value. Kuno, where two batches of cheetahs have been brought from Namibia and South Africa, is about to open for tourism and these qualities in the cheetahs could enhance the park’s appeal to visitors, he said. The African experts have also shortlisted 10 young, suitable cheetahs in the age group of 19 months to 36 months that could be made available for translocation to India in early 2024.
He emphasized that although the cheetah deaths recorded in Kuno National Park are unfortunate and have attracted negative media attention, they are within normal parameters for the reintroduction of wild cheetahs. Of the 20 adult cheetahs transferred from Africa to Kuno since March this year, six have died – the latest being on Wednesday. Experts have drawn the government’s attention to initial difficulties encountered during cheetah reintroduction efforts in South Africa, where nine out of 10 attempts have failed. These experiences led to the establishment of best practices for the reintroduction and management of wild cheetahs.
“In South Africa, it took us 26 years to reintroduce the cheetah and in the process we lost 279 wild cheetahs. We cannot expect India to get this right with only 20 cheetahs. High losses are unlikely, Project Cheetah will “undoubtedly experience similar growing pains,” said South African wildlife expert Vincent van der Merwe. Based on past reintroduction experiences in Africa, the report said, India’s founding population of 20 individuals will dwindle to about five to seven individuals before population recovery begins. Experts said the first babies with realistic chances of surviving to adulthood are likely to be born in 2024. However, the early mortality rate of cheetah cubs is expected to be high as reintroduced female cheetahs adapt to different birth intervals in Asia.
The report also highlights the importance of “supermoms” – the highly successful, fit and fertile female cheetahs that sustain wild cheetah populations in southern Africa. Experts said only one in seven feral females relocated to India is likely to be a “supermom”. They also said that the cheetahs’ natural process of developing a thick layer of fur in anticipation of the African winter was proving fatal in India’s wet and hot conditions and that they had taken long measures to combat the deadly infections and prevent any more deaths. Suggested treatment with a medicine that works till.
Thick coats, high parasite loads and dampness create a perfect recipe for dermatitis, on top of which fly attack exacerbates infection and compromises skin integrity, experts said. When cheetahs sit on their humps, the infection can spread and contaminated fluids can reach their spinal cord. Experts said that if there is a genetic link with the development of the winter coat, adopting an “evolutionary timeline” may be the only permanent solution. He emphasized that the transfer of at least 50 more founder cheetahs from the South African population over the next decade would be critical to stabilizing the Indian population.
Long-term genetic and demographic viability would also require continued exchange between the southern African and Indian metapopulations. Experts strongly advised the Indian authorities to identify alternative sites for reintroduction, suggesting that Kuno could be a sink reserve. Sink reserves are habitats that have limited resources or environmental conditions that favour a species. are less favourable for survival or reproduction. Sink reserves rely on the dispersal of animals from source reserves—habitats that provide optimal conditions for a particular species’ population growth and reproduction—to maintain their population numbers.