Cheetah Deaths Raise Concerns Over India’s Cheetah Reintroduction Program

Cheetah Deaths Raise Concerns Over India’s Cheetah Reintroduction Program

In a bid to revive the cheetah population in India after 75 years, a government program to reintroduce these magnificent big cats has faced criticism and concern following the deaths of three cheetahs in recent weeks. The deaths have sparked debates about the suitability of their new habitat and the potential consequences for their well-being.

Since October, 20 cheetahs, which had gone extinct in India in 1952, were brought over from South Africa and Namibia as part of this ambitious government initiative. Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh state was chosen as their new home, and the plan is to release 50 cheetahs over the next five to ten years.

However, wildlife and conservation experts have voiced their apprehensions about the project, accusing the government of rushing a “publicity stunt” and expressing doubts about the suitability of Kuno National Park for housing such a significant number of cheetahs. Typically, cheetahs require vast habitats spanning thousands of square miles, while in Kuno, their territory would be less than 500 square miles.

These concerns gained further traction with the recent deaths of three cheetahs in captivity within the fenced enclosure of Kuno. One male, Sasha, died from a pre-existing medical condition in March, while another cheetah passed away in April. Tragically, a female named Daksha lost her life during a violent mating encounter after being placed in an enclosure with two other males.

The Supreme Court addressed the matter in a hearing and expressed doubts about Kuno National Park’s suitability as a home for numerous African cheetahs. The judges suggested that the government consider exploring alternative states, such as Rajasthan, where a different political party rules, to ensure the protection and provision of suitable habitat for the cheetahs.

Leading scientists involved in the reintroduction efforts have emphasized that deaths are to be expected and should not be seen as indicative of the project’s failure. They have also reported the birth of four cheetah cubs since the animals were brought to India.

However, critics of the reintroduction experiment argue that the Supreme Court’s acknowledgment of Kuno’s unsuitability has come too late. Concerns also linger regarding India’s capacity to handle these cheetahs adequately, especially considering their prolonged captivity. Only three cheetahs have been released into the park, while the remaining 17 remain in human captivity within the enclosure.

Ravi Chellam, the coordinator of Biodiversity Collaborative, has labeled the program “a vanity project” and questioned its alignment with conservation objectives. He believes it may transform into a mere “glorified safari park” that could adversely affect the animals’ well-being and broader conservation efforts in India.

The Supreme Court’s intervention prompted the government representative to announce the formation of a task force to investigate the cheetah deaths. Additionally, alternative locations are being explored to accommodate some cheetahs, addressing the concerns raised by the bench of judges.

While the cheetah reintroduction program in India aimed to re-establish a once-vanished species and promote conservation efforts, the recent deaths have shed light on significant challenges. The importance of selecting suitable habitats, ensuring animal welfare, and considering the expertise required for such endeavors has become evident.

As the investigation progresses, it is crucial to strike a delicate balance between the preservation of biodiversity, respect for animal rights, and the ability to provide optimal conditions for these magnificent creatures.

This article by Josie Fu was first published by OneGreenPlanet on 24 May 2023. 

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