Project Cheetah – Challenges and Significance – Explained Pointwise

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India’s ambitious Cheetah reintroduction programme Project Cheetah completed one year on 17th September 2023. Project Cheetah is India’s ambitious cheetah relocation program aimed at establishing a self-sustaining population of about 35 cheetahs in the country over the next decade. However the Project has faced several criticisms with the death of 9 cheetahs (6 adults and 3 cubs) out of the 20 translocated cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa.

What is Project Cheetah?

Project Cheetah-Project Cheetah is the world’s first intercontinental large wild carnivore translocation project. The project aimed at the reintroduction of Cheetahs in the country which had become extinct in 1950s in the country.

Status of Project-

Incoming CheetahsStatus of CheetahsFuture Action
First batch- 8 cheetahs from Namibia arrived on September 17, 2022 at Kuno Palpur National Park.6 Cheetahs have died. 14 cheetahs are remaining.All the surviving 14 adult cheetahs and one cub are in captivityThere is talk of them being radio-collared again and released once the winter sets in. The project authorities are talking of additional sites being prepared for releasing the cheetahs such as the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary, both in Madhya Pradesh.
Second batch-12 cheetahs from South Africa arrived on February 18, 2023 at Kuno Palpur National Park.
*In late March 2023, one of the females gave birth to a litter of four cubs which were conceived in India.*3 of the 4 cubs have died and 1 cub is being hand reared as the mother has rejected it.

Key Facts about Cheetahs

Project Cheetah
Source-The Indian Express

Read More-Difference between Asiatic and African Cheetahs

Brief Historical Timeline of Project Cheetah

  • Earliest historical references of Cheetahs in India:
    • They are found in classical Greek records of India, from Strabo, about 200 years before the Common Era.
    • In the Mughal Period, cheetahs were used very extensively for hunting. Emperor Akbar had 1,000 cheetahs in his menagerie.
    • Central India, particularly the Gwalior region, had cheetahs for a very long time. Various states including Gwalior and Jaipur used to hunt cheetahs.
  • Extinction of Cheetahs:
    • The country’s last spotted cheetah died in Sal forests of Chhattisgarh’s Koriya district in 1948 and the wild animal was declared extinct in the country in 1952.
    • Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh, the ruler of a small princely state in today’s Chhattisgarh shot India’s last 3 surviving cheetahs.
  • 1st plan to reintroduce the cheetah-First solid steps were taken in the 1970s, during negotiations with Iran, then under Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Iran’s cheetahs were Asiatic, like India’s extinct animals.The plan was to exchange Asiatic lions for Asiatic cheetahs.
  • 2009-Another attempt to source Iranian Cheetahs was made in 2009 without success. Iran would not permit even cloning of its Cheetahs.
  • 2012-Supreme Court ordered a stay on the reintroduction project.
  • 2020-South African experts visited four potential sites: Kuno-PalpurNauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary, Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary and Madhav National Park.
  • 2022- Project Cheetah was officially launched by the Prime Minister.

What is the Significance of Project Cheetah?

Environmental Significance

Biodiversity restoration-Reintroduction of cheetahs helps in restoring the natural balance of the ecosystem by reintroduction of a top predator in the food chain. Cheetahs will help in the restoration of open forestland grassland ecosystems in India and enhances the ecosystem services like water security, carbon sequestration and soil moisture conservation.

Conservation efforts of other species-The success of Project Cheetah can serve as a model for the reintroduction of other critically endangered species which can motivate conservationists and governments to pursue similar efforts for other endangered species like the Great Indian Bustard.

Ecological research opportunities- Reintroduction of cheetahs provides unique opportunity for scientists to study cheetah behaviour and ecology in a new environment.

Economic Significance

Enhancement of tourism- The presence of cheetahs in Indian national parks boosts wildlife tourism and generates revenue. This has led to job creation like Cheetah Mitras and has benefited communities living around national parks and wildlife reserves by increasing their sources of income.

Social Significance

Social awareness about conservation- Debates on success of Project Cheetah has raised public awareness about wildlife conservation and the importance of protecting endangered species.

Socio-cultural significance- The reintroduction of cheetahs have also helped in reviving their cultural importance in India, as Cheetahs have historically been symbols of strength and agility in Indian mythology and folklore.

What are the possible reasons behind high cheetah mortality in Project Cheetah?

There has been death of 6 Cheetahs and 3 cubs which have higlighted the Drawbacks in the implementation of Project Cheetah.

Improper implementation of Livestock Importation Act 1898-According to the Livestock Importation Act 1988 the prescribed time period of quarantine of animals is 30 days.  However there was delay in release of Cheetahs from their quarantine. Cheetahs were released after 60 days of quarantine. This prolonged confinement of cheetahs in quarantine has had adverse effects on their ability to adapt and has led to psychological adjustment issues.

Improper Scientific Assessment-The Action Plan of Project Cheetah mandated scientific assessment to establish the prevalence of potential carnivore pathogens/diseases at the release sites. Critics point to the lack of scientific assessment report in public domain. Also the three cheetah deaths have been attributed to native pathogens.

Improper Verification of Cheetahs selected for Translocation- Action Plan of Cheetah Relocation laid down detailed guidelines for proper verification of Cheetahs for their relocation. However critics point to the laxity in following the detailed Verification guidelines as the cause of death of the first Cheetah has been attributed to pre-existing renal disease.

Improper implementation of stated release procedure- The Action Plan of Cheetah reintroduction laid down proper guidelines for the quarantine compartments of male-female,radio collaring and stated release procedure. However the timelines prescribed and stated release procedures were not properly implemented.

What are the challenges being faced by Project Cheetah ? 

Less protected area available for thriving Cheetah Population-Cheetahs are a low-density species with 1-2 Cheetahs existing in 100 sq kms. Thus the newly introduced cheetahs will need about 5,000 sq km of good-quality habitat to establish a viable population in India. The country currently does not have this extent of habitat for the cheetahs.

Less Prey availability- Experts have raised concerns about the cheetahs travelling large distances to roam and hunt which is not optimal in the current environment for their long-term survival.

Fragile Creatures-Unlike tigers and leopards, Cheetahs are comparatively fragile creatures and are more prone to sustaining fatal injuries in the wild.

Climate change impacts-Adapting to the impacts of climate change on the habitat and prey availability have posed challenges for the cheetah population’s long-term survival.

Inter Species Competition- Tigers from the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, 140 km away from Kuno, migrate to the park. The proximity of these predators in the same ecosystem has also posed a serious challenge for Project Cheetah.

Genetic Differences- Many experts have expressed concerns over reintroduction of African Cheetahs instead of Asiactic cheetahs. They believe that Asiactic cheetahs would have been a more suitable choice considering historical survival of species in the region and their ability to quickly acclimatize.

What should be the way forward for Project Cheetah?

Improvement of health monitoring- Regular health checks and early detection of health issues can help prevent deaths like Sasha’s from kidney disease and gastritis.

Strengthening collaboration- Enhancement of cooperation between Indian authorities, international conservation organizations and experts to share knowledge and best practices for cheetah reintroduction.

Coordination with other countries- Collaboration with countries like South Africa and Namibia to exchange knowledge and best practices in cheetah conservation.

Expansion of habitat area- Preparation of additional sites for release of the cheetahs such as the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary so as to increase their habitat and prey areas.

Establishment of a long-term monitoring plan- Development of a comprehensive plan to monitor the cheetah population, track their movements and evaluate the overall success of the reintroduction project.

Encouraging community based conservation- Involvement of local communities in conservation efforts by providing economic incentives and opportunities for sustainable development such as ecotourism or community-led wildlife management.

Government has initiated efforts in removing the anomalies of Project Cheetah by constituting a 11 member task force under the chairmanship of Rajesh Gopal. Success of Project Cheetah will be a landmark success for conservation efforts in India.

Read More- One year on, India’s cheetah project shows a spotty report card

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