All you need to know about the cheetah relocation project, the species

Updated on Sep 14, 2022 11:14 AM IST

The cheetah is listed as Vulnerable by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species

The big cats have been vaccinated, fitted with satellite collars, and are currently in isolation at Namibia’s Cheetah Conservation Foundation (CCF) Centre in Otjiwarongo. (File Photo)
The big cats have been vaccinated, fitted with satellite collars, and are currently in isolation at Namibia’s Cheetah Conservation Foundation (CCF) Centre in Otjiwarongo. (File Photo)

Eight cheetahs will be flown from Namibia to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park on Saturday for the reintroduction of the species in India after it was declared extinct in the country seven decades back in 1952. The big cats have been vaccinated, fitted with satellite collars, and are currently in isolation at Namibia’s Cheetah Conservation Foundation (CCF) Centre in Otjiwarongo. Here is all you need to know about the project, the species based on the information from CCF, an organisation dedicated to saving the cheetah in the wild that has coordinated with the Indian authorities and scientists for the translocation for 12 years:

What is the status of the cheetah? What are the most recent census details, and where are the populations distributed?

According to the study “Disappearing spots: The global decline of cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and what it means for conservation” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), fewer than 7,100 cheetahs remain in the world. CCF believes the number should be a little higher, but still less than 7,500. This accounts for several micro populations in the Horn of Africa that were not included in the PNAS study, some of which CCF is currently studying.

The cheetah is listed as Vulnerable by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Two subspecies, the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) and the Northwest African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki) are listed as critically endangered. The cheetah’s historical distribution in Africa covered a substantial portion of the continent, but because of range contraction in the last century, the cheetah is found in only 9% of its historic range, of which 77 % is outside of protected areas. The species is nearly extinct in its entire Asian range, except for a remnant population in Iran, about 20 individuals or less. Acinonyx jubatus jubatus is the southern/eastern African cheetah, and its range includes the eight countries of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya.

This is the largest population of wild cheetahs in the world. Smaller, fragmented populations of Acinonyx jubatus soemerengii, the Horn of Africa cheetah, also called the Somali cheetah, are found in some parts of Ethiopia and some of the Horn of Africa countries, although their numbers have never been officially recorded.

What was the checklist for selecting suitable habitat for the translocation to India, type of prey base needed, how many square km per adult is required, etc?

Our research shows that in semi-arid regions of Namibia, cheetahs utilize a huge home range of about 1500km2. The home range size requirements in India will likely be lower due to the more productive habitats. It is imperative that potential threats to cheetahs at release sites be addressed or plans are in place to mitigate them. A habitat suitability study should be conducted at each site to ensure there is sufficient vegetation to support viable prey populations to sustain the introduced cheetahs for the long term. Such studies have been conducted at potential release sites. The reintroduced population needs to be protected from anthropogenic threats, and the potential impact of unnaturally high competition among cheetahs and other predators needs to be managed. Due to the cheetah’s large home ranges and a tendency to occur at low densities, release sites should be part of a larger suitable landscape, or metapopulation management is necessary.

How and when did the African and Asiatic cheetah diversify into separate subspecies?

Online research tells me the Southeast African and Asiatic cheetah are believed to have diverged from each other 50,000-100,000 years ago. The time of divergence between A. j. venaticus and A.j. jubatus was estimated at 4,700-67,400 years ago. The extent of the separation of A.j. venaticus from the African subspecies was not clear-cut. mtDNA data placed the split between A.j. jubatus and A. j. venaticus slightly more recently than that of A.j. jubatus and A.j. soemerengii. Microsatellite data suggested that the divergence with A.j. soemmerengii was the more recent event. It is important to keep in mind that divergence values between A.j. venaticus and the other subspecies could have been stochastically increased due to a postulated recent bottleneck in A.j. venaticus. O’Brien et al (2017) estimate a time of divergence between A.j. venaticus and A.j. jubatus of approximately 6500 years ago.

What type of climates do African cheetahs survive in, and would they be able to adapt to India’s conditions?

Cheetahs are very adaptable and had a wide distribution until 100 years ago including being found in some areas of India. They will be able to survive most of the climate conditions in India. In parts of Africa, where cheetahs are found, the temperatures can vary from very, very hot during the day to cold at night. Cheetahs can adapt to seasonal shifts. They also contend with extreme rain and wet seasons in Africa, much like in India. For hunting, cheetahs do well in open savannahs and grassland environments and can also occur in areas with moderate woody vegetation cover. Cheetahs also benefit from high grass or bush areas that enable them to remain undetected while stalking prey. The habitat at the release sites in India is an important consideration, and CCF believes the cheetah will do very well in India’s landscapes.

What were the factors to be considered for translocation success and individual survival?

Evaluating the success of cheetah translocations is complicated. The outcomes of many incidences are unpublished and those that are published potentially suffer from positive publication bias. Successes are more likely to be published than failures. Success is generally based on reproductive output, but programmes often use different definitions of this term. A meta-analysis of documented cheetah translocations determined that at least 727 cheetahs were translocated into 64 sites in southern Africa between 1965 and 2010. Six of the 64 release sites were considered successful based on natural recruitment (births) exceeding adult mortality three years after introductions began.

In many of the other projects, the number of cheetahs released was small, and long-term monitoring was not conducted. If such long-term monitoring had been implemented and documented, additional sites might have been deemed successful. The principal factor associated with reproductive success in a carnivore translocation programme is the suitability of the release site for the target species, and in the case of free-range releases, the suitability of the surrounding area. Important characteristics of the release site include habitat and prey availability, the potential for intra-and-interspecific competition, and the animal’s ability to leave the site.

Have translocations previously been done within Africa or to other continents?

In Namibia, CCF began research on translocations in the early 1990s. CCF teams have translocated over 100 Namibian cheetahs to help support populations in other regions of Namibia and in South Africa. Its rehabilitation research began in 2005 and since then, it has rehabilitated over 65 orphan cheetahs and evaluated and released more than 650 trapped wild cheetahs back onto the landscape in Namibia.

CCF research provided a way forward for India. The first translocated cheetahs in Namibia were released into fenced and unfenced nationally protected areas in the 1960s and 1970s in South Africa, to reintroduce or reinforce existing populations. Legislation passed in South Africa in the 1960s returned the right to utilise wildlife to landowners, paving the way for the development of private reserves. In 1991, landowners in South Africa began stocking private reserves with cheetahs for tourism purposes, and translocations intensified during the mid-1990s-mid-2000s. A trial conflict mitigation method, a compensation-relocation programme was carried out in South Africa between 2000 and 2006. Cheetahs perceived to be preying on livestock were captured by landowners and relocated to private reserves and national parks. But vacant territories encourage the immigration of new individuals, which may increase human-wildlife conflict. Removing predators is counterproductive to encouraging landowners to coexist with large carnivores, and the impact of repeated removals on wild populations was the primary reason for suspending this programme in South Africa.

What is the protocol for translocations?

In 2010, CCF’s Laurie Marker drafted a document that outlines the logistical steps of bringing a small group of male and female cheetahs from southern Africa or another range state with wild cheetahs to begin the process of introduction. The animals would be first placed in large, fenced-holding areas for adapting to their new environment. They would be fitted with satellite collars to enable scientists to track their movements and monitor their health status. After a short stay, they would be released into a larger enclosure, to become familiar with their new environment, where they would remain for a month or more before being released into the National Park. Their movements would be monitored by research teams, and if an individual cheetah strays too far afield, the animal would be brought back into the Park. This document was expanded upon over the years, and now, it has been absorbed into the 310-pp Action Plan for the Introduction of Cheetah in India.

What role is CCF playing in the project?

CCF is assisting the committee of conservation experts appointed by the Supreme Court of India in introducing the African cheetah to the landscape of India by participating in site visits, conducting assessments, training field officers, and identifying suitable cheetahs for the project. It is also assisting the Namibian government in preparing the Namibian cheetahs that will make the transcontinental journey. Members of CCF’s introduction team will accompany the cheetahs to India, from the CCF Centre in Otjiwarongo, Namibia, to Kuno National Park.

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