Cheetah reintroduction project set for success despite challenges: Project head

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New Delhi: Cheetah reintroduction in India is going to be a success considering the country's strong track record in conserving big cats, the project head has said, countering concerns raised by several experts.


In an interview with PTI, SP Yadav, Additional Director General of Forests at the Environment Ministry, said that South Africa experienced nine failed attempts and more than 200 cheetah deaths over 20 years before developing expertise in the re-introduction of the animal.

"The President of South Africa said India is taking good care of big cats and therefore, they want to donate and support India. We have a good track record of saving and conserving big cats like tiger, lion, leopard, snow leopard, and based on that track record and experience I can say that cheetah introduction in India is going to be a success," Yadav said.

Project Cheetah, India's ambitious initiative to reintroduce cheetahs after their extinction in the country, marks its one-year anniversary on Sunday.


The initiative began on September 17 last year when Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a group of cheetahs brought from Namibia into an enclosure at Madhya Pradesh's Kuno National Park. Since then, the project has been closely watched by conservationists and experts worldwide.

While the project has faced some serious challenges, including the unexpected deaths of some of the relocated cheetahs, Yadav said it has also achieved significant milestones.

"The mortalities so far under Project Cheetah have been within the expected limits. As per the Cheetah Action Plan, which we released before bringing cheetahs to India, we anticipated approximately 50 per cent mortality, but right now, 14 imported cheetahs are surviving, besides one cub born on Indian soil," he said.


Twenty cheetahs were imported from Namibia and South Africa to Kuno in two batches -- one in September last year and the second in February this year.

Since March, six of these adult cheetahs have died due to various reasons. In May, three of the four cubs born to a female Namibian cheetah succumbed to extreme heat. The remaining cub is being raised under human care for future wilding.

In a letter addressed to the Indian Supreme Court in July, African experts had expressed grave concerns about Project Cheetah's management. They questioned the project's communication gaps and sluggish response to critical issues.


They said that some cheetah fatalities could have been prevented with improved monitoring and timely veterinary care.

"We are doing our best and our efforts have been appreciated by international experts. Some of the deaths were due to renal failure, the cubs died due to heatstroke. Some cheetahs developed a winter coat (in Indian summer and monsoon) in anticipation of African winter. Nobody, including African experts, expected it," Yadav, who is also the head of Project Tiger, said.

"Once this cause was known to us, the veterinarians immediately took steps, and all animals were brought back to the bomas (enclosures) and were given preventive medicines, and now everyone is healthy. So, this is good learning for the next year cycle. And we'll be very well-prepared next year to face this kind of situation," the senior forest official said.


African experts had earlier raised concerns about their reduced involvement since the retirement of Professor YV Jhala, who had prepared the ground for the ambitious cheetah project under successive governments since 2009.

Yadav countered the insinuation saying the allegation was baseless.

"The international experts are part of the Cheetah Steering Committee. Saying that it coincides with somebody's retirement does not make any sense. Their views are invited, and they are consulted as and when required. And then I must say that there is regular communication with them," he said.


In May, the Centre set up an 11-member high-level steering committee to review and monitor the progress of the Cheetah reintroduction programme and give suggestions on the opening of the cheetah habitat for eco-tourism.

The project head said India and South Africa have emphasised the importance of cooperation and capacity building in cheetah management.

"Our honourable minister met the honourable minister of South Africa on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Chennai. And both ministers have agreed for better cooperation, better communication, and offsite and onsite capacity building of Indian officials, veterinarians, biologists, and trackers in India as well as in South Africa," Yadav said.

Addressing calls from some experts to halt cheetah imports to India due to the project's challenges, Yadav retorted, "Has anybody worked in his lifetime for cheetah conservation? My question is this. No one has worked for cheetah conservation. I don't agree with their opinion."

Yadav highlighted some successful natural hunting behaviour observed among the cheetahs in the wild, saying, "They have demonstrated great skill in hunting, protecting their kills, and adapting to the environment. These indications are extremely encouraging, and I believe we have accomplished numerous milestones within just one year of completing Project Cheetah."

Regarding the possibility of rewilding the remaining cub, Yadav said, "It is of wild origin. So, the process of rewilding will take place. Three females brought from Namibia were of wild origin but were hand-reared. One unfortunately died due to renal failure, two are surviving and one of them has given birth to the cubs."

"We have a very good track record of rewilding tigers. There are immense possibilities. Because of their origin, they can be rewilded and released in the wild. There is no doubt in my mind that it won't happen."