Last September, eight radio-collared cheetahs made the 5,000-mile-long journey from Namibia to India, eventually landing at Kuno National Park in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. Their arrival marked the final phase of a 13-year-long effort called Project Cheetah, which aims to reintroduce the big cat species to India’s grasslands 70 years after they were hunted into oblivion.
The project’s launch also coincided with the 72nd birthday of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who celebrated by personally releasing the first cat from its crate into the park. “Decades ago, the age-old link of biodiversity that was broken and became extinct, today we have a chance to restore it, ” Modi said in his address. “Today, the cheetah has returned to the soil of India.”
Project Cheetah entered its second year yesterday (Sept. 17), but the fate of the high-profile conservation project hangs in the balance after nine out of 20 cheetahs, including three cubs, have died of various causes since March.
Authorities have recaptured the remaining cats and kept them in enclosures for close monitoring and supervision, where they will continue to remain until a government-appointed committee of wildlife experts approves their re-release into the wild.
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These setbacks have raised concerns from an international community of conservationists involved in the project, who say inexperience and mismanagement—as well as the government’s politicization and sidelining of expert opinions—may have contributed to the cheetah deaths.
Why does India want to reintroduce cheetahs?
Asiatic cheetahs once roamed the grasslands of the Indian subcontinent for many centuries alongside lions, tigers, and leopards until they became a hunting target of princely rulers and British colonizers. In 1952, they were officially declared extinct in India.
Since then, India has held many discussions on how to reintroduce the animal back to its ecosystem and considered offers from the governments of Iran and Kenya. In 2009, the Indian government officially proposed the introduction of African cheetahs, but the Supreme Court halted these efforts in 2012 after some wildlife experts said importing African animals violated international conservation standards. The top court reversed its decision in early 2020, allowing the import of cheetahs—but in small numbers and on an experimental basis.
Following the relocation of the first six cats from Namibia, a second group of cheetahs arrived from South Africa in February. About a dozen more cats are planned to be brought from African countries every year for the next five years in an attempt to establish a cheetah population of around 40. The Indian government plans to spend 40 crore rupees, or nearly $11 million, on the project.
“India’s motivation stems from the desire to restore a vital element of its ecological heritage,” SP Yadav, who leads Project Cheetah on behalf of the Indian Environment Ministry's forestry department, tells TIME. “By bringing them back, India aims to showcase its commitment to conservation and biodiversity restoration.”
Ensuring Project Cheetah’s success is also “a matter of national pride,” adds Yadav, nodding to the Modi government’s aspirations to grow India’s wealth and scientific knowledge. During the cheetahs’ release last September, Modi told spectators that “along with these cheetahs, the nature-loving consciousness of India has also awakened with full force.”
In a statement, Laurie Marker, the executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which is also advising the project in India, said global conservationists saw the project as central to “ensuring cheetah survival transcends national boundaries.”
Why did the cheetahs start dying?
The first death of India’s new cheetahs occurred when Sasha, a female, died from a pre-existing medical condition in March, followed by the sudden, unexplained death of Uday, a male, in April. Then, in May, another female cat named Daksha died from a violent mating incident. Two separate cubs found to be weak, underweight, and dehydrated also perished.
Several more cheetahs died in July and August from various factors including humidity, maggot infestations, and infections caused by the radio collars, alarming the experts, Yadav says. “Even in South Africa and Namibia, such problems had not been reported,” he says. In July, authorities began recapturing the rest of the free-ranging cheetahs to prevent more deaths.
Many cheetah experts working in African conservation projects, who have also advised the program in India, have nevertheless expressed concerns. They say that while it is typical for half of the original population to die in the first year of relocation due to poaching or environmental difficulties, better monitoring and timely veterinary intervention could have prevented the deaths that have occurred so far.
Adrian Tordiffe, a South African cheetah expert serving on the Indian government’s advisory committee for Project Cheetah, says he was frustrated by the cheetahs’ deaths. “From a veterinary point of view, we are always trained towards saving every single individual life,” he says.
Tordiffe also describes the project as “very difficult to navigate.” Earlier in the year, he says he and other foreign experts were excluded from committee meetings and experienced delays in communications with Indian officials, especially when the cheetahs were injured.
“I’m sure they’ve got very good experience with tigers in India, but this is a new and unique species [for modern India],” he adds. “We can often pick up little things and give advice on how to manage the situation as see a lot of clinical cases.”
Tordiffe speculates the lack of communication may have been due to a hesitation from the Indian side to publicly acknowledge cheetah deaths. “The whole culture is very different; they tend to feel you have to keep things quiet,” he says.
It’s especially concerning since India is one of the few places with dedicated veterinary support and monitoring of individual cheetahs, Tordiffe adds. “We don't have that luxury in many of these kinds of projects, so it’s truly remarkable,” he says.
In July, Tordiffe and other Namibian and South African experts involved in the project raised these concerns in a letter written to India’s Supreme Court, where they alleged their roles as advisers had been reduced to “mere window-dressing.” (Two experts have since withdrawn their names from the letter out of concern that it could impede future exports of the animal from Africa.) Another letter by CCF’s Marker asked for “better communication [and a willingness to] trust experts,” according to the Indian Express.
The government responded by saying the deaths did not call for alarm despite the project having had its challenges. The top court instructed the Indian government to consider a better home for the cheetahs: "You should look at other possibilities ... Why are you making this a prestige issue?” the court asked in July. The cheetahs have yet to be relocated elsewhere.
What happens next?
The upheaval meant Kuno missed its target date for opening the park up to tourists in February, but conservationists hope the project will rebound as it enters its second year.
Yadav contends the project is already seeing some promise, pointing to the 50% survival rate of the cheetahs and the birth of cubs in Kuno. “The success of this project will open up possibilities for rewilding initiatives worldwide,” he adds. In Kuno, workers point to Aasha, a Namibian female, who has so far survived and happily explored her new surroundings, as an example of “positive hope for the future of cheetahs in India.” In a recent newsletter, the national park stated that “Aasha’s journey taught us that cheetahs can survive Indian conditions without changing their behavior much.”
Tordiffe, the South African cheetah expert, says its important the project succeed, as it can serve as a model for future wildlife management. “We don't live in a world where we can allow normal evolution to take place at its own pace because we are changing the world too fast for many of these animals to be able to adapt,” he warns. “And so we must take responsibility to have this kind of active wildlife management.”
Nevertheless, Tordiffe says that Project Cheetah has taught him one new thing in the field of animal conservation. “You can be the best biologist or veterinarian, but in a high-profile project like this, you’ve also got to be savvy in terms of the political context,” he says.
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Write to Astha Rajvanshi at email@example.com