South African expert team expected in India soon for cheetah translocation to Kuno

Aug 18, 2022 08:35 PM IST

Once at Kuno National Park, a plan drafted by South African cheetah expert said, cheetahs who keep on escaping from the national park in MP will be shifted to the fully enclosed Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan

BHOPAL: A team of South African cheetah experts is expected to be in India later this month to brief Indian foresters about the risk management plan for the translocation of cheetahs to Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh and the steps needed to be taken for the success of the project.

An African cheetah going through 1st health exam by an international team of experts at Cheetah Conservation Fund before being send to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh (ANI File)
An African cheetah going through 1st health exam by an international team of experts at Cheetah Conservation Fund before being send to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh (ANI File)

A South African official familiar with the discussion on the project said that once India approves the risk management plan shared with the Indian government, a team of South African officials would visit Kuno. “We expect the visit to happen by end of August,” he said.

The management plan, submitted by the head of the cheetah metapopulation project director Vincent ven der Merwe, details the steps to be taken to prevent disease transmission, mortality in transit, low post-release survival rate, human-wildlife conflict and long-term genetic and demography viability of wild cheetahs.

Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh is expected to get four male and four female cheetahs from Namibia by the end of this month.

In September, 12 more African cheetahs are expected to come from South Africa once the two countries sign a memorandum of understanding, officials said. India signed the agreement with Namibia on July 20.

According to the risk management plan, between 2001 and 2009, 157 ‘problem’ cheetahs removed from South Africa farmland were relocated to 41 newly establish fenced reserves in South Africa, collectively known as the ‘metapopulation’.

The document said the metapopulation cheetahs were best suited for the proposed Indian reintroduction as they were born and raised amongst competing predators (including lion, spotted hyena, leopard, wild dogs and brown hyena) and can be considered predator savvy.

Also, these cheetahs are accustomed to living within confined protected areas and can be considered fence respecting having no record of livestock depredation.

The cheetahs will fly to India in specialized transport crates. “These crates have been designed based on experiences obtained from fifty years of cheetah transport and are designed to minimise stress and allow for veterinary intervention in the case of emergency,” the plan said.

A chartered cargo aircraft of the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India will transport the cheetahs to India. “Heavy lift helicopters, with closed doors, have kindly been made available by the Indian Air Force for the relocation of the cheetahs from Jaipur International Airport to the holding facilities and Kuno National Park,” it said.

But, the real risk comes after the release of the animals in an enclosure with cheetahs exhibiting a “low survival rate” post-release. They will need round-the-clock monitoring through GPS tracking devices to improve the survival rate.

If the cheetahs escape from their enclosure in Kuno, the plan said, they will be immobolised and brought back. Serial escapees will be sent to Mukundra Hills Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, it said.

Two experienced South African veterinarians, Dr Mike Toft and Dr Jennifer Lawrence will stay around for the first two months to ensure further training in the field and sufficient manpower in the event of multiple escapes. “Gus van Dyk, one of South Africa most experienced reserve managers, will also advise on best practices with regards to wild cheetah boma management and wild cheetah capture for a two-week period post release,” the plan said.

The plan underlined that there was a potential for human-wildlife conflict in both the 48,700-hectare buffer zone surrounding Kuno National Park, as well as sheep and goat farming areas on the periphery of this protected area.

“Cheetahs that are responsible for several cases of livestock depredation will be considered for relocation to the fully enclosed Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve,” the plan said.

At the Kuno National Park, Indian officials said they are prepared. The 12km-long fence has been completed with seven internal compartments. The fencing has been fitted with solar electric to shoo away wild animals, an official said.

But the two leopards that have to be moved out of the enclosure for the cheetahs are still proving to be a major challenge. Officials are yet to catch them

“Long weeds, grass and the muddy soil have hindered our effort to catch the leopards. Now, two elephants have arrived from Satpura Tiger Reserve and soon the tranquillisation of leopard will be done,” said Kuno National Park field director Prakash Verma.

To be sure, this round of translocation of cheetahs is only the first step.

Merwe’s report said India will need to get more wild cheetahs in future to “ensure genetic and demographic viability” of the wild cheetahs in the long term. “This will require long-term commitment by South African and Namibian authorities,” the Merwe report said.

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    She is a senior reporter based at Bhopal. She covers higher education, social issues, youth affairs, woman and child development related issues, sports and business & industries.

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