Sesaipura: Celebrations erupted outside the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh as Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the eight cheetahs from Namibia into their enclosures Saturday, bringing back a species that went extinct in India 70 years ago.
The relocation programme, decades in the making, is the first and biggest trans-continental conservation experiment of its kind, with the intent of re-establishing the cheetah in its former range.
According to the government, idea is to establish metapopulations — a group of spatially separated populations — which will also help conserve India’s vanishing grass ecosystems.
— All India Radio News (@airnewsalerts) September 17, 2022
Prime Minister Modi appealed for patience from the general public Saturday, asking them to “wait for a few months” before they get to see the cheetahs in Kuno. He also thanked the government of Namibia for its role in the pilot project.
“For them [cheetahs] to be able to make Kuno National Park their home, we will have to give them a few months’ time,” said the Prime Minister, who is celebrating his 72nd birthday today.
The ‘Project Cheetah’ was proposed by Indian conservationists and Namibia-based non-profit Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in 2009 and received the nod of the Supreme Court as a pilot project in January 2020. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was subsequently signed between India and the Republic of Namibia in July 2020 in this regard.
Journey to India
The eight cheetahs were loaded onto a customised B747 jet at the Hosea Kutako International Airport in Namibia’s capital Windhoek Friday, and flown approximately 11 hours overnight to Gwalior.
They were then transferred to the Kuno Palpur National Park via helicopter.
“I am excited and anxious, but optimistic at the same time,” Dr Laurie Marker, executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), had told ThePrint before boarding the flight in Windhoek.
Marker added that the big cats were “mildly tranquilised” for the journey.
Other experts on the flight included cheetah specialists Eli Walker and Barthelemy Balli, and veterinarian Dr Ana Basto. According to a CCF statement, Walker and Balli will “remain at Kuno indefinitely to assist management and staff with the cheetahs through a period of acclimation”.
Dr Adrian Tordiffe of the AfriCat Foundation and metapopulation specialist Dr Vincent Van der Merwe also flew down to India along with the cheetahs.
The cheetahs — five female and three male — are all wild adults ranging from two to five-and-a-half years, and have lived alongside leopards, Dr Marker said. Four of the cats come from private reserves in Namibia.
Each cheetah was meticulously chosen based on an assessment of its health, disposition in the wild, hunting skills, and the ability to “contribute genes that would result in a strong founder population”, CCF said.
Namibia and South Africa will supplement the population with four or five cheetahs every year for at least five years, to diversify gene flow.
South Africa is yet to sign a formal agreement on the translocation. Based on their assessment during a two-day visit to Kuno from 6-8 September, experts from South Africa will submit a report to the government there, following which an agreement with India will be formalised.
‘Will take many months to adjust’
Dr Marker told ThePrint that it will take the cheetahs time to adjust to their new surroundings. “They definitely need to acclimatise, get used to the sights and sounds, and investigate the area.”
Forest officials from Kuno National Park said this process can take several months.
“They will be released into a 25 x 30 [feet] quarantine area where they are mandated to stay for 30 days. After that, we will release them into the enclosure,” said J.S. Chauhan, chief wildlife warden of the Madhya Pradesh forest department.
He added that the department “will have to feed them [cheetahs] while in quarantine”.
Each cheetah is vaccinated against diseases like canine distemper, and fitted with a satellite collar for close monitoring.
They will be released into the national park spanning 748 square kilometres only after they appear confident enough within the 600-hectare enclosure. “We believe we have enough space for at least one metapopulation because the forest area contiguous with Kuno is 5,000 square kilometres, which is plenty of space for the cheetahs,” Chauhan said.
The Kuno National Park is characterised by a dry and deciduous environment which is suitable for the cheetahs, according to Namibian and South African experts.
Several of Kuno’s 400-odd staff have been trained by African experts to monitor the cheetah and at least one tracker dog has been deployed to keep track of the leopards and cheetahs.
‘Cheetah mitra’, mixed reactions
Kuno National Park, which was originally prepared for the translocation of the Asiatic lion, is not as well established as other reserves nearby, such as the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.
The forest department rest house closest to the national park is located at Sesaipura in Sheopur district, where, on Friday, forest and district officials were discussing last-minute arrangements and passes for the Saturday event which was attended by at least 200 people.
But public reception to the cheetahs is among the foremost concerns of wildlife authorities. Residents of at least three villages near Kuno said they felt the leopard population in the park had already increased, as had attacks on livestock.
“When we see them, we make a racket and chase them, sometimes with sticks and stones if we have to,” said Morsingh Gurjar, a resident of Barsiya village.
In an attempt to mitigate any threats to the cheetahs, the MP forest department recruited “cheetah mitras” from adjoining villages. “What we will have to do is raise awareness, explain the cheetah’s behaviour to people, and coordinate with the forest department if there are any attacks,” said Bharat Singh Gurjar, a ‘cheetah mitra’ from Sesaipura village.
The programme is only a week old, and no formal training has been imparted to the ‘cheetah mitras’ yet.
Kalu Adivasi, who lives in a village bordering Kuno, said there was fear among locals that the cheetahs might harm livestock and attack villagers. “I feel the forest department could have made more efforts to include us tribals, who live closest to the park, in the cheetah mitra plan,” he said.
But the translocation of cheetahs has also led locals in Sheopur district, where the average literacy rate is 61.32 per cent, to believe that it might usher in development for the region.
The sentiment is shared by Gopi Adivasi. A resident of Moravan village, he had sold a patch of his farmland to a local Gujjar family, who later sold it to developers. According to locals, a five-star hotel is coming up in the area and Gopi now works as a labourer in the project.
“He [Gopi] needed the money, so he sold the land. A hotel is coming up. This is good news for everyone. We hope it will bring more employment, more work,” Gopi’s neighbour Vishnu Gujjar, who also works as a labourer on the project, told ThePrint.
He added, “If the cheetahs also bring this [more employment], it will be good.”
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)