One year after launch. Cheetah projectIndia’s ambitious attempt to introduce wild African cats into the country claims short-term success on four counts. local communities.
EXPLANATION: The test of survival is in the wild, not in captivity where animals are under protective care. According to India’s Cheetah Action Plan, male and female cats from both Namibia and South Africa were required to spend two and three months respectively in bomas (enclosures) before being released into the wild.
Therefore, within 12 months of their arrival in India in September 2022, each of the three Namibian males would have to spend 10 months in the wild and each of the five Namibian females would have to spend nine months in the wild. In total, the eight cheetahs imported from Namibia would have spent 75 cumulative cheetah months in the wild.
However, in reality they spent only 16 cheetah months outside the bomas (Chart).
The seven males and five females imported from South Africa arrived in mid-February 2023. By October, each male should ideally have spent six months and each female five months in the wild. Together, the 12 South African imports were to spend 67 cheetah months in the wild.
In fact, as the chart shows, they haven’t spent 11 Chet months in the wild.
However, the project lost 40% of its functional adult population. Of the 20 cats that arrived in India, six died (Dhatri and Sasha from Namibia, Suraj, Uday, Daksha and Tejas from South Africa), and two were unfit for the wild. Four cubs were born in India, three of which died, and the fourth is growing up in captivity.
GENERAL SCOPE. Asha, Gaurav and Shaurya, only three Cheeks imported from Namibia, spent more than three months in the wild. Even they are stuck in bomas since July. It is unlikely that any of the cats established homes in Kuno.
REPRODUCTION. The goal, according to the Action Plan, was: Cheetahs breed successfully in the wild. However, Siyaya nicknamed Jwala, the Namibian female that gave birth to four cubs in Kuno, has raised herself. She was not fit for the wild and her cubs were born in a hunting boma.
PRODUCT: The project did create a number of jobs and contracts for local communities, and the price of land rose significantly around Kuno. No human-cheta conflict was recorded in the area.
Three of the eight Namibian cheetahs, Sasha, the project’s first victim, and Jwala and Savannah, who had never been released outside the bomas in Kuno, were raised in captivity as research subjects. They were offered to India to complete the heavy import period.
To get the riversIndia has pledged support to Namibia for sustainable use and management of biodiversity in international forums. Weeks after Chetter’s arrival, India abandoned its decades-old position by abstaining in a CITES vote against the ivory trade.
In Kuno, captive breeding was attempted by combining the sexes in hunting bomas. However, due to extremely low genetic variation within the species, that female is very selective in seeking out the most distantly related male. For this reason, allowing the male to give the female a chance to not be in heat can lead to violence.
The project got lucky with Jwala in March. But the gamble failed when two South African males killed the female Phinda alias Daksha in May.
The monitoring teams failed to intervene in time when three cubs succumbed to acute dehydration in May. Maggot infestation in multiple animals which would have affected their gait also went unnoticed until the festering wounds under their radio collars killed two in July.
The project experts had failed to factor in seasonal variation while sourcing animals from the southern hemisphere. The animals grew winter coats during the Indian monsoon, leading to prolonged wetness and infection.
Kunos carrying capacity
The projects original goal, to establish a free-ranging breeding population of cheetahs in and around Kuno, has been diluted to managing a meta population through assisted dispersal.
The Cheetah Action Plan estimated high probability of long-term cheetah persistence within populations that exceed 50 individuals. Cheetal is the cheetahs prime prey in Kuno where project scientists reported per-sq-km cheetal density of 5 (2006), 36 (2011), 52 (2012) and 69 (2013).
The feasibility report in 2010 estimated that 347 sq km of Kuno sanctuary could sustain 27 cheetahs, and the 3,000 sq km larger Kuno landscape could hold 70-100 animals.
After the project was revived in 2020, the Cheetah Action Plan assessed Kunos cheetal density at 38 per sq km which could sustain 21 cheetahs, while a larger landscape of 3,200 sq km could support 36. A single population of 50 cheetahs was no longer deemed feasible.
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The Action Plan also offered another estimate based on distance-sampling 23 cheetals per sq km which would make it difficult to support even 36 cheetahs in the larger Kuno landscape.
Paradigm shift ahead
Since Kuno cannot support a genetically self-sustaining population, the projects only option is a meta-population scattered over central and western India. But unlike leopards, which dominate this landscape, cheetahs cannot travel the distances between these pocket populations on their own.
A solution would be to borrow from the South African model that periodically translocates animals from one fenced reserve to another to maintain genetic viability. But if this assisted dispersal becomes the new normal, the case for maintaining forest connectivity that allows natural dispersal of wildlife will be severely weakened.
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