Kuno to get 13 cheetahs next year who can co-exist with leopards
Sheopur: A watchtower looms up, overlooking a 12 ft high solar-powered fence. There is a fresh layer of marble grass, with artificial ponds in between. A few months ago, this land was only thorny trees and patchy grass. Men are working in this area from dawn to dusk, and the warm autumn air is abuzz with excitement. Everyone, from forest officials to Sehariya tribals who live here, cannot wait for their new guests to arrive.
The Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh was originally developed to be the second home for Asiatic lions in India besides Gir. But while that project did not take off, there is now fresh enthusiasm. Sometime early next year, Kuno is expecting to get 13 African cheetahs, in what is being described as the worlds largest intercontinental animal translocation.
The project is crucial. In India, it could mean the introduction of the fastest animal on the planet back into the wild, 69 years after the last surviving cheetah in India was recorded to have been hunted down in Chhattisgarh in 1952.
There are challenges too, not least of all a habitat occupied by leopards already, with a fence being created that would prevent their entry, or other wild animals. This fear of conflict has even meant that the 13 cheetahs have been carefully selected, 10 from South Africa and three from Namibia, all of whom have survived with leopards in the past.
Kuno was selected as the habitat for the African cheetah by a Supreme Court mandated expert committee in January 2021, constituted by the apex court to implement the Cheetah Translocation Project. Kuno was preferred over the Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh because it was large enough for cheetahs to roam around and hunt freely, away from any human interference.
History has also played a role as the cheetah coexisted with lions and tigers in Kuno till the early 19th century. “The work done to get lions from Gir by way of relocating 24 villages from inside the habitat also worked in favour of Kuno,” said MK Ranjit Sinh, former director of Wildlife Trust of India (WII) who chairs the court’s expert panel for the cheetah relocation.
The translocation of lions did not eventually happen because the Gujarat government said it could not share its “state’s pride.”
In the past 10 months, the Madhya Pradesh forest department and experts from the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India have worked to make changes in the dry deciduous forest of Kuno in Sheopur district. One of the first concerns were the invasive grass species and thorny bushes, both detrimental to the cheetah’s ability to make a kill.
Beyond that, a highly secured semi-captive cage spread over six sq km is close to being ready, a pipeline to get water from the Kuno river 12 kms away from the enclosure has been laid, watchtowers have been erected and the landscape management is in the final stages. The entire re-conservation process has cost about ₹10 crore, and the cheetahs are expected between Jaunary and February 2022. “It was a race against time for us and now we are giving final touches,” said Alok Kumar, principal chief conservator of forest, wildlife, Madhya Pradesh.
One of the primary concerns for the project are the presence of close to 30 leopards in Kuno, with cheetahs often dying in conflict with leopards in South Africa. “Kuno is a perfect habitat for cheetah translocation but my only concern is the presence of more than 30 leopards. In South Africa, the highest deaths of cheetahs were reported due to conflict with leopards,” said South African cheetah expert Vincent Van der Merwe. The cheetah, being the smallest in the big cat family, often fails to save its prey from the bigger species, and is therefore susceptible to starving to death as well.
Van der Merwe has sought a report from the Madhya Pradesh forest department on the reasons for increase in leopard population in the region and steps being taken to control it. The report, he said, is important to study the possibility of translocation of cheetahs to other wildlife areas in India such as Mukundara Hills in Rajasthan, which is being developed as a second home for Ranthambore tigers, which also has a high leopard population.
Like Mukundara, tigers from Ranthambore also migrate to Kuno, about 140km to the east, in what is another possible conflict. Ranthambore tiger reserve director T K Verma said last week that some of the12 tigers that have gone missing between January 2020 and March 2021 may have migrated towards Kuno and Mukundara Hills.
However, this is something Kuno officials deny. “We haven’t found any pug marks and or sign of movement of tigers in Kuno and nearby areas in the past 8-10 months,” said Kuno divisional forest officer PK Verma, ruling out the possibility of a cheetah-tiger conflict.
Sinh said it was a misconception that cheetahs could not coexist with leopards and tigers. “We chose Kuno as famous historian Irfaan Habib in his atlas had mentioned the presence of tigers, lions and cheetahs together. In the future, if lions are to be translocated to Kuno, there would not be any threat for cheetahs,” he said.
Another translocation challenge is the possibility of transmission of viral diseases that can kill the imported animals. Therefore, the South African wildlife department will vaccinate all cheetahs before translocation. In India, all animals moving around in Kuno, including cattle, are being vaccinated.
After landing in Kuno, the cheetahs will be kept in a semi-enclosed cage for a few months so that they can adapt to the new habitat and are safe from prowling leopards.
“The enclosure of 6 sq. km has been developed by using honeycomb fencing with a height of 12 ft. This includes 3 ft underneath the ground, which will prevent porcupines and wild boars from digging a hole to enter the enclosure. The fence will also have a solar electric current, which emits minor shocks to animals trying to enter, which are not fatal,” said Shyam Prasad Bekal, an engineer from Karnataka, who is heading the fencing work in Kuno.
Inside the enclosure, a massive vegetation change is being carried out. Verma said thorny trees such as Acacia Leucophloea (known locally as ranj) and Ziziphus nummularia (beri) have been felled to protect cheetahs from injury. Desmostachya bipinnata (kush grass) has been replaced with dichanthium annulatum (marble grass). “The grass grows up to 1 ft,” Verma said. If the habitat suits the cheetahs, the landscape changes will then be applied across 738 sq. km of the Kuno landscape.
After they arrive, the cheetahs will not be kept together, officials said. The enclosure will be divided into five parts to segregate the cheetahs according to their gender. “Initially, the male and female cheetahs will be kept separately,” said Yadvendradeva Jhala, who is advising the state forest department on the cheetah project.
The biologist, who introduced modern tiger estimation methodology in India, added that the Kuno experiment was important would in time be developed as a breeding centre for cheetahs, which could then mean their introduction into the wild in different parts of the country.
To ensure that cheetahs get clean prey, Abdesh Dhakad, range officer and in charge of building the enclosure, said vaccinated prey would be lured into the enclosure through a funnel-like fencing called the Boma technique. This South African technique is used for sending animals inside an enclosure without hurting them. The animals are attracted towards funnel-like steel cage on a truck and then released inside the enclosure.
Within the enclosure, Dhakad said the cheetahs would be watched around the clock through guards on six watch towers and through high-resolution cameras.
In anticipation of an influx of tourists soon, outside Kuno, investors have taken on least vast tracts of land in the Karhal block of Sheopur, that has a 12 kilometre road that connects Kuno to the state highway. “Most of the land on both sides of the road has been leased out in the past six months and prospective investors are coming every day,” said a local tribal Harikishan Sehariya, 55 of Saisaipura village.
Locals say the price of land for a long term lease has doubled as prospective investors are willing to pay more than 10 lakh for an acre. “Many people are willing to start tourism businesses here as the cheetah will be a huge attraction,” said Jinesh Jain, who has taken a MP Tourism property on lease. Arvind Tomar, who plans to set up luxury tents, added, “All land on the main road has been leased and our investment now depends on the success of the project.”
Outsiders cannot buy land around the Kuno wildlife area, he said, as Karhal is a notified as a tribal block of Sehariyas, a primitive tribal group considered economically most backward in the state with literacy rate of just 23.2 %.
Haribaran Sehariya, 35, is waiting for the windfall the community now hopes will come. He invested all his savings to open a small grocery shop on the trisection of his village Tiktoli, just 10 kms from Kuno. “Once the cheetahs come my income will increase,” he said, sitting outside his make-shift shop, where he presently earns ₹50 to 100 in a day.
The district administration is also trying to involve the local community, encouraging them to open homestays. “Through the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) we are providing them assistance to open homestays,” said Shivam Verma, collector Sheopur.
Activists have however also sounded warning bells, says that these tribal communities should not be used as “entertainment.” “The government should ensure they don’t become tools of entertainment and efforts should be made to promote and save their culture. The government should also focus on improving their nutrition and education levels,” Devendra Bhadoriya, an activist working with theSehariya tribe in Sheopur, said.
MK Ranjit Sinh said the Kuno cheetah project is crucial for wildlife conservation in India in several ways as it would provide insights on how animals settle in a totally new landscape.
“In India, the grasslands are the most neglected part of ecosystem restoration and conservation. If the project is successful, the state governments will start working in developing grasslands for introduction of cheetahs,” he said.
He said the development and ecological restoration of grasslands would also help revival of several other endangered species including the Great Indian Bustard, with less than 200 left in India. “With a flagship species, several other species are revived. That is the aim of the cheetah project,” he said.
Not everyone however has been completely convinced by the Kuno project. Biologist Fayaz Khudsar, who studied the Kuno habitat for lion relocation and has challenged the cheetah translocation in the Supreme Court, said a habitat cannot be restructured in days, months or a year, and that ecological adaptation takes much longer. “Kuno is not ready for cheetahs due to its woody forest. Cheetah’s only strength is his speed of catching prey. The favourable and catchable prey for cheetah is black buck and chinkara. All black bucks and most chinkaras have been wiped out in ecological succession because of the woody forest and the tall grass in Kuno. The forest department is thinking of supplying hares and other prey in the enclosure but these are not catchable prey for the cheetah,” Khudsar said.
Van Der Merwe however said that the ultimate aim of the project was to relocate cheetahs to four or five places. “We can’t expect 100% success rate of translocation of cheetahs by just moving them to Kuno. We have to translocate them to at least 4-5 places having different habitat ecology so that we can evaluate the behaviour of cheetahs and work accordingly to make project successful. Our first step in Kuno is very important for project to succeed,”he said.