Experimenting with cheetahs, applying copy-paste as conservation

Source: The post is based on the article “Experimenting with cheetahs, applying copy-paste as conservation” published in “The Indian express” on 8th August 2023.

Syllabus: GS3- Conservation & environmental impact assessment

News: In this article author discusses India’s cheetah reintroduction project led by Dr. Jhala. Originally, the project aimed to establish free-ranging cheetahs in Kuno. Due to changing prey densities and habitat challenges, the plan evolved to shuffle cheetahs between areas. This approach might undermine India’s broader conservation goals by accepting fragmented habitats and “assisted dispersal” instead of natural wildlife movement. The author questions the accuracy of Dr. Jhala’s estimates and the project’s long-term implications.

What are the challenges to India’s cheetah reintroduction project?

  1. Changing Project Goals: Initially, the project aimed to establish free-ranging cheetahs in Kuno. Now, it leans towards “assisted dispersal”, which means moving cheetahs between areas artificially.
  2. Prey Density Fluctuations: Cheetal, the primary prey for cheetahs in Kuno, has varied densities over the years:

2006: 5 per sq km

2011: 36 per sq km

2012: 52 per sq km

2013: 69 per sq km

By 2021, Dr. Jhala’s data showed a density of just 38 per sq km.

  1. Habitat Size and Carrying Capacity: Dr. Jhala initially suggested Kuno sanctuary (347 sq km) could support 27 cheetahs, with the larger Kuno landscape (3,000 sq km) holding up to 100 animals. By 2021, the numbers dropped to 21 cheetahs for a 748 sq km park and 36 for a 3,200 sq km landscape.
  2. Legal Hurdles: The Supreme Court initially barred the project in 2013 and only allowed it in 2020 on an experimental basis.
  3. Conservation Ethos Mismatch: The approach of shuffling cheetahs might undermine India’s broader conservation goals. The traditional ethos supports natural wildlife movement and interconnected forests. Assisted dispersal could promote fragmented habitats.
  4. Doubts Over Data Accuracy: There is inconsistency in Kuno’s cheetal density data provided by Dr. Jhala over the years.

What should be done?

Reevaluate Project Goals: Reconsider the idea of “assisted dispersal” and refocus on establishing free-ranging cheetahs in their natural habitat, as originally intended.

Monitor Prey Density: Given the fluctuations in cheetal density (from 5 to 69 per sq km in seven years), regular monitoring is essential to ensure stable prey availability.

Legal & Ethical Considerations: Ensure that reintroduction aligns with the Supreme Court’s guidelines and India’s broader conservation ethos.

Maintain Forest Connectivity: Prioritize natural wildlife corridors and interconnected forests to avoid turning habitats into isolated genetic islands.

Transparency in Data: Ensure consistent and transparent data collection and sharing to maintain trust in the project’s viability.

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