On a day when eight cheetahs were brought in from Africa as part of a historic reintroduction of the animal to India, leading conservationist Valmik Thapar worried about “how the big cat will walk, hunt, feed and raise” in Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, where it faces “a lack of space and prey”.
“This area is full of hyenas and leopards, the main enemies of the cheetah. When you see hyenas in Africa chasing and even killing cheetahs,” he said in an interview with NDTV. “There are 150 villages nearby that have dogs that can tear up cheetahs. It’s a very gentle animal.”
Speed vs Space
When asked why the cheetah, the fastest mammal in the world, couldn’t just outrun its attackers, he mentioned the difference in terrain. “In places like the Serengeti (National Park in Tanzania) cheetahs can run off because there are large expanses of grassland. In Kuno, unless you convert forest to grassland, it is a problem… to take turns quickly on stony ground, full of obstacles, it’s a huge challenge (for the cheetahs).”
“Can the government convert forest into grassland? Does the law allow this,” he asked rhetorically.
Originally, the plan was to move some lions from Gir (Gujarat) for a second population in Kuno, to prevent disease from wiping them out,” said Mr Thapar, apparently referring to movements around the year 2010, “but the Gujarat government disagrees.” The Supreme Court initially favored the relocation of lions, but approved the cheetah plan about two years ago.
Thapar cited the tiger as another potential threat to the cheetah in Kuno: “Sometimes tigers even come here from Ranthambore, which is one of the reasons lions couldn’t be moved. It doesn’t happen very often. But we’ll have to enclose that corridor as well.”
What will they eat?
He also mentioned difficulties in finding prey. “In the Serengeti, there are more than a million gazelles available. In Kuno, unless we breed and bring in blackbucks or chinkaras (which live on grassland), the cheetahs will have to hunt the spotted deer, which are forest animals and can hide. These deer “They also have big antlers and can injure the cheetah. And cheetahs can’t afford to hurt them, it usually kills them.”
“We’ve already had to grow chinkaras and blackbucks. Still, we want to make history,” he said, “I’m not sure why we’re doing this at this level. There are a lot of problems with native species. We need a balance.”
He said the cheetah has long been a “pet royal” and “never killed a human being”. “It’s so soft, so vulnerable. [The relocation] is a huge challenge.”
Earlier today, wearing sunglasses and a safari hat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pressed the lever to release a pack of cheetahs from Namibia at a special enclosure in Kuno.
The prime minister – today was his birthday – was seen clicking pictures of the big cats after they were released. The cheetahs, five females and three males, are kept in the quarantine areas for about a month before being released into the park’s open woodland areas.
The creatures were declared extinct in India in 1952.
Valmik Thapar underlined that they are not doing well in breeding. “There are only about 6,500 to 7,100 left in the world. And the death rate (death at the cub stage) is 95 percent. For now, eight have been brought in and more are due to be brought in, increasing over the years to 35. It’s a huge task. They need to be monitored 24/7 to make sure they’re alive.”