NTCA visits Kuno National Park in April and review current status of Project Cheetah
On the directions of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a team of experts comprising of Adrian Tordiffe, Veterinary Wildlife Specialist, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Pretoria, South Africa; Vincent van dan Merwe, Manager, Cheetah Metapopulation Project, The Metapopulation Initiative, South Africa; Qamar Qureshi, Lead Scientist, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and Amit Mallick, Inspector General of Forests, National Tiger Conservation Authority, New Delhi visited the Kuno National Park on 30 April, 2023 and reviewed the current status of the Project Cheetah. The team examined all aspects of the project and submitted a comprehensive report on the way forward.
The team observed that twenty cheetahs were successfully translocated to Kuno National Park (KNP) in September 2022 and February 2023 from southern Africa in the initial phase of an ambitious project to re-establish the species within its historical range in India. The project hopes to benefit global cheetah conservation efforts by providing up to 100 000 km2 of habitat in legally protected areas and an additional 600 000 km2 of habitable landscape for the species. Cheetahs fulfil a unique ecological role within the carnivore hierarchy and their restoration is expected to enhance ecosystem health in India. As a charismatic species, the cheetah can also benefit India’s broader conservation goals by improving general protection and ecotourism in areas that have been previously neglected.
It is not surprising that a project of this magnitude and complexity would face many challenges. This is the first intercontinental reintroduction of a wild, large carnivore species and therefore there is no comparable historical precedent. Due to careful planning and execution, all twenty cheetahs survived the initial capture, quarantine and lengthy transport to the purpose-built quarantine and larger acclimatization camps in KNP in Madhya Pradesh. Releasing the cheetahs into free-roaming conditions poses substantial risks. Like Kuno, no Protected Areas in India are fenced.
Animals are thus free to move in and out of the park as they wish. Cheetahs, like other large carnivores are known to range widely during the initial few months after being reintroduced into unfamiliar open systems. These movements are unpredictable and depend on many factors. After several months the cheetahs should establish their own communication networks and settle down in relatively fixed home ranges. It is important that individual cheetahs do not become totally isolated from the reintroduced group during this phase as they will then not participate in breeding and will thus be genetically isolated.
Two points should also be noted regarding the carrying capacity of cheetahs in KNP; Firstly, it is impossible to determine the precise carrying cheetah capacity in KNP until the cheetahs have properly established their home ranges and secondly, the home ranges of cheetahs can overlap substantially depending on the prey density and several other factors.
While many have made predictions about the anticipated carrying capacity of cheetahs in KNP based on other ecosystems in Namibia and East Africa, the actual number of animals that the reserve can accommodate can only be assessed after the animals are released and have established home ranges. Cheetah home-range sizes and population densities vary tremendously for different cheetah populations in Africa and for obvious reasons, we do not have useful spatial ecology data for cheetahs in India yet.
To date, four of the cheetahs from Namibia have been released from the fenced acclimatization camps into free-ranging conditions in KNP. Two males (Gaurav and Shaurya) have stayed within the park and have not shown any interest in exploring the landscape beyond the borders of the park. A female named Aasha has made two exploratory excursions to the East of KNP beyond the buffer zone but has remained within the broader Kuno landscape and has not ventured into human-dominated areas. Another male (Pawan), explored areas well beyond the boundaries of the park on two occasions, venturing into farmland near the border with Utter Pradesh during his second excursion. He was darted by the veterinary team and returned to an acclimatization camp in KNP.
All the cheetahs are fitted with satellite collars that record their location twice a day or more depending upon the situation. Monitoring teams have been employed to follow the released cheetahs 24 hours a day in rotating shifts, keeping some distance to allow the cheetah its normal behaviour and ranging. These teams record any information on the prey hunted by the animals and any other information on their behaviour that may be of importance. It is important that this intensive monitoring continues until the individual cheetahs have established home ranges.
The team inspected most of the cheetahs from a distance and evaluated the current procedures and protocols for managing the animals. All the cheetahs were in good physical condition, making kills at regular intervals and displaying natural behaviours. After discussion with the Forest Department officials in KNP they agreed on the next steps to be taken going forward.
- Five more cheetahs (three females and two males) will be released from the acclimatisation camps into free-roaming conditions in KNP before the onset of the monsoon rains in June. Individuals were chosen for release based on their behavioural characteristics and approachability by the monitoring teams. These released cheetahs will be monitored in the same way as those that have already been released.
- The remaining 10 cheetahs will remain in the acclimatisation camps for the duration of the monsoon season. Certain internal gates will be left open to allow these cheetahs to utilise more space in the acclimatisation camps and for interactions between specific males and females to take place.
- Once the monsoon rains are over in September, the situation will be reassessed. Further releases into KNP or surrounding areas will be done in a planned manner to Gandhisagar and other areas as per the Cheetah Conservation Action Plan to establish meta population.
- Cheetahs will be allowed to move out of KNP and will not necessarily be recaptured unless they venture into areas where they are in significant danger. Their degree of isolation will be assessed once they settle down and appropriate action will to be taken to enhance their connectivity to the group.
- The female who gave birth in March, will remain in her camp to hunt and raise her four cubs.
Information on the recent deaths of two cheetahs in the project:
- Sasha, a six-year-old female from Namibia became ill in late January. Her blood results indicated that she had chronic renal insufficiency. She was successfully stabilised by the veterinary team at KNP, but later died in March. A post-mortem confirmed the initial diagnosis. Chronic renal failure is a common problem in captive cheetahs and many other captive felid species. Sasha was born in the wild in Namibia but spent a large proportion of her life in captive conditions at CCF. The underlying causes of renal disease in felids are unknown, but generally the condition progresses slowly, taking several months or even years before clinical symptoms manifest. The disease is not infectious and cannot be transmitted from one animal to another. It therefore poses no risk to any of the other cheetahs in the project. The prognosis for the condition is very poor and there are currently no effective or ethical treatment options. Symptomatic treatment for the condition only provides temporary improvement, as seen in Sasha’s case.
- Uday, an adult male of uncertain age from South Africa developed acute neuromuscular symptoms on the 23rd of April just over a week after he was released from his quarantine camp into a much larger acclimatisation camp. During the morning monitoring, it was noted that he was stumbling around in an uncoordinated manner and was unable to lift his head. He was sedated by the KNP veterinary team and treated symptomatically. Blood and other samples were collected to send to the lab to get a better understanding of his condition. He unfortunately died later that same afternoon. Additional wildlife veterinarians and veterinary pathologists were brought in to perform a thorough post-mortem.
The initial examination revealed that he had most likely died of terminal cardio-pulmonary failure. Failure of the heart and lungs is common in the terminal stages of many conditions and does not provide much information about the underlying cause of the problem. It also does not explain the initial neuromuscular symptoms. The rest of his organ tissues appeared to be relatively normal except for a localised area of potential haemorrhage in his brain. There were no other signs of injury or infection. Numerous tissue samples were collected for analysis. Importantly, his relatively normal blood results and normal white blood cell count indicate that he was not suffering from any infectious disease that could pose a risk to any of the other animals. The histopathology and toxicology reports still need to be finalised before any conclusions can be drawn. The other cheetahs have been closely monitored and none of them have shown any similar symptoms. They all appear to be perfectly health, are hunting for themselves and displaying other natural behaviours.