On August 2, another cheetah died at Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, marking the ninth such death in less than a year since they were re-introduced as part of India’s ambitious Cheetah project. Were deaths expected with such a translocation programme? Has there ever been a successful reintroduction (of cheetahs) into an unfenced reserve in recorded history? In a conversation with Outlook, Devavrat Pawar, a conservation biologist and a PhD candidate at the University of Wageningen delves further into these questions.
Excerpts from the interview:
What did India’s cheetah reintroduction project aim to achieve? Where did it falter?
The cheetah reintroduction project aimed to establish a metapopulation of cheetahs sustainable over the long term – for several decades at least. The project is still very much in its infancy, and this is the very first transcontinental wild large carnivore translocation in recent history. It understandably run-into many challenges as the species explores a novel landscape and new social contexts. Thus there have been many teething problems, and there have been important learnings that can inform management strategies and future initiatives.
There has never been a successful reintroduction (of cheetahs) into an unfenced reserve in recorded history. What are the possible reasons for this?
The majority of the cheetah reintroductions so far have been conducted in Southern Africa, a geography where private Game reserves are a commonplace conservation practice, many of which are fenced off. Cheetah reintroductions and translocations in the past have occurred between these game reserves.
Several experts have said that mortality rates witnessed during such reintroduction programs are ‘normal’. What does this mean?
Confinement, handling by humans and transportation are stressful for any wild animals that are accustomed to a free-ranging life, so this can sometimes have adverse impacts, even when best practices are adopted, as they were for the Cheetah project.
Therefore, mortalities are common in large-scale translocation operations of wild animals.
Why are radio collars used? Experts have also said that the cheetahs’ deaths were due to infected wounds caused by the radio collars around their necks. Would this be considered death due to ‘human error’?
Radio collars are crucial to monitor the movements of species in the wild, especially when they are wide-ranging like cheetahs are. Even though Kuno is a very large park, it is not difficult for a cheetah to range beyond its boundaries. In general, mortalities are quite rare for radio-collared big cats, so it needs to be left to veterinarians and other experts to determine whether and why that was a problem here.
Now what of the remaining cheetahs? Should their collars come off?
If the collars are suspected to be adversely affecting the health of these animals, experienced veterinarians will need to determine if they should be taken off. Without collars, it’ll be much harder to monitor the movement of free-ranging Cheetahs, and authorities handling the project will need to redesign the monitoring protocols accordingly.