Cheetahs to return to India next week: Risks and opportunities
New Delhi, Aug 07: The planned introduction of South African and Namibian cheetahs into Indian wildlife reserves, said to be the first-of-its-kind project in the world to move a large carnivore from one continent to another and put it in the wild, poses both challenges and unique research opportunities, according to a leading South African expert.
Professor Adrian Tordiffe of the University of Pretoria has been closely involved with the ambitious plan to send 12 cheetahs from South Africa, as well as an unknown number from neighbouring Namibia to India to mark the 75th anniversary of independence on August 15.
The group of cheetahs will be introduced in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
The professor, who has been extensively studying cheetahs for over two decades, said that as soon as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa signs a Memorandum of Understanding, the majestic beasts will be transported the next day.
"Getting the relevant CITES documentation will only take a day more," he said.
According to officials, the first batch comprising four male and as many female cheetahs will arrive from Namibia by August 15.
Tordiffe said South Africa plans to provide more cheetahs to India until the population is viable.
"I'm estimating that at least 50 or 60 cheetahs will go to India within the next five or six years. I'm also anticipating that there will be a lot of collaboration on scientific research between ourselves and our Indian counterparts to learn as much as we can from this introduction," he said.
"There have been instances of other species being introduced to other countries, such as the European bison being introduced into the UK, but this is the first large carnivore that is being introduced from one continent to another," Tordiffe said.
Most of the world's 7,000 cheetahs live in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Namibia has the world's largest population of cheetahs.
The cheetah is the only large carnivore that got completely wiped out from India, mainly due to over-hunting and habitat loss.
The last spotted feline died in 1948 in the Sal forests of Chhattisgarh's Koriya district.
Tordiffe said the Indian cheetah became extinct in the 1950s as the species had been hunted down because of the bounty offered by the erstwhile British rulers, who regarded them as vermin.
The fastest land animal in the world will find a new home in the Kuno-Palpur National Park (KNP) in Madhya Pradesh's Sheopur district.
The park, originally developed to be the second home for Asiatic lions in India besides Gir, was selected as a habitat for the African cheetah by a Supreme Court-mandated expert committee in January 2021.
Tordiffe highlighted the free roaming of cattle as the biggest challenge to the introduction of the endangered cats in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
"It's supposed to be a protected park, but cattle are going in there. The walls that are supposed to keep the cattle out are broken. The real problem is that there are no real keystone species to drive the conservation for those areas," he said.
"The local conservation officers I think don't really have any incentive to try and keep the cattle or the people out of those areas," he said.
Tordiffe said there was better management of the tiger reserves in India.
"If these (proposed cheetah) areas are compared to the tiger reserves in India, there are a host of animals there besides the tigers. The main reason you have such diversity in those reserves is that the cattle are kept out and the people stay out of the reserves, so you have a low human impact in those areas," he said.
Tordiffe, however, remained optimistic about the success of the project.
"I saw the level of enthusiasm of the guards and the conservation people in Kuno. They are very excited and they also realise what responsibilities are on them to look after these animals when they arrive there. I think they also realise the impact this could have on tourism," he said.
Tordiffe explained that there were two main reasons for the project.
"One is what the cheetah can do for India in those reserves in the drier parts of the country and how they can drive the conservation of other endangered species and how they can protect the bushlands and the savannah in that area."
"The second reason is what the introduction can do for the overall cheetah conservation worldwide, not just as sub-species in India. It's worthwhile taking a calculated risk here to see just how the project can benefit the cheetah population as a whole," he said.
Tordiffe said the concerns that the introduction of the cheetah into India would bring new diseases to the country or that they would die from diseases picked up in India had been addressed already.
"I was brought in to do a disease risk assessment, which found that the risk is so low that it is negligible. We've also mitigated the risk by vaccinating the cheetahs, putting them in quarantine and treating them for internal and external parasites as standard veterinary procedures," he said.
Meanwhile, public sector Indian Oil will contribute Rs 50 crore over four years to the government's Cheetah introduction project, according to a pact signed with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) on August 2.
The 'African Cheetah Introduction Project in India' was conceived in 2009 but it failed to take off for over a decade.
The plan to introduce the cheetah by November last year in Madhya Pradesh's Kuno, spread over 750 kilometres in the state's Chambal region, suffered a setback due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Kuno national park has a good prey base for cheetahs, comprising the four-horned antelope, chinkara, nilgai, wild pig, spotted deer and sambar, according to wildlife officials.
Experts from the premier Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India visited sites in Madhya Pradesh in 2020 to look for the best habitat for the introduction of the African cheetah. The visit came after the Supreme Court, in January that year approved the plan to introduce cheetahs in suitable habitat on an experimental basis.
The cheetah is considered vulnerable under the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) red list of threatened species, with a declining population of less than 7,000 found primarily in the African savannas.