Cheetah speed
Representational image: PIB

Sasha's death in Kuno: A few blips won’t mean the end of Indian cheetah saga

This had to happen. When one of the eight African cheetahs relocated to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park seven months ago died on March 27, alarm bells started ringing loudly in the environment and wildlife circles. Even the Supreme Court wanted to know about the presence of “experts” in the team which is monitoring the cheetah rehabilitation programme in India.

But the doubting brigade of the anti-relocation lobby, many of whom were against the initiative in the first place, are likely to be hugely misplaced. Death is as much a reality in jungles as is anywhere else, and this particular female cheetah named Sasha was suffering from kidney disease even when she was brought to Kuno from Namibia.

Hard facts

Now for some hard, and seemingly unpalatable facts. This was the first death of a relocated cheetah in their ongoing attempts to find a toe-hold on the alien Indian soil – and will certainly not be the last. To draw a broad comparison involving big cats, the two tiger reserves, Sariska and Panna, faced a similar predicament at the turn of this century.

Both Sariska and Panna lost all their tigers, and subsequently, tigers were relocated here from Ranthambore and Kanha, respectively. However, they started gaining in numbers only after several false starts and even abnormal deaths. One of the male tigers brought to Sariska, though radio-collared, was poached soon after his arrival. And the tigresses there refuse to give birth to cubs for many years , leading to a large number of otherwise rational tiger experts questioning the entire relocation process in Sariska.

Also read: Cheetah Sasha dies in MP’s Kuno park, had kidney ailment before translocation

Similar hardships were faced in Panna too. But how things changed. Today, Sariska and Panna are cited as stellar examples of tiger relocation in India, and the success there has raised hopes for several other reserves, which have seen a sharp decline in the number of big cats in recent times.

Who would know these things better than senior IFS officer R Sreenivasa Murthy, under whose stewardship the number of tigers in Panna rose from 0 to 30? Speaking with The Federal, Murthy said not much should be looked into the death of one cheetah in Kuno, and the cheetah rehabilitation project was going smoothly. “This was an expected loss. Such an issue is faced in all projects of species’ reintroduction. This particular one would have been factored in by the teams monitoring cheetahs’ behaviour in their new homes,’’ he said.

With each relocation of big cats to a new home come common hardships. Soon after tigers became extinct in Panna in 2009, Murthy was appointed its Field Director. He recalls the next six years as most challenging and rewarding. The first big trouble erupted when a prominent relocated male T-3 decided to walk out of the safety of the reserve. “For full one month, that is, from November 25 to December 25, 2009, our forest teams made numerous efforts to track down T-3 and make his return. The effort bore results and we made an interesting discovery: the tiger had travelled 250 kilometres away from Panna and was apparently trying to reach Pench, from where it was brought. This was a classic manifestation of homing instinct in a tiger,” he recalled.

Also read: Cheetahs in India are hunting with ease. But why the real test is yet to come

Difference between relocation of tigers and cheetahs

But Murthy’s problems did not end there. He said, “We found it quite challenging to garner the support of the local population. Don’t forget that before the relocation began, all the tigers in Panna were poached and this happened because people showed little interest in saving the big cats. We eventually got people’s support and this also contributed greatly to eventual survival of the tiger in Panna.”

Of course, there is one big difference between the relocation of tigers and cheetahs. And this difference will make cheetahs’ survival in Kuno a bit more challenging. Explains Murthy, “A tiger being the apex predator in an Indian forest, it faces no threat from any other animal. This is not the case with cheetahs. Here he will be the third powerful predator, and will have to constantly look over its shoulders and be on its guard against tigers and panthers. But this is not a great handicap. It has been surviving in Africa in the presence of lions and panthers and should do well here too.”

Murthy’s assessment makes sense. Kuno holds some 80 panthers, and they will pose some level of a threat to the cheetahs. But then, even for the big cats, the day in a forest is never a catwalk. Rather, it’s an ongoing struggle on two fronts: to keep their hides intact and to work for their next meal.

Also read: Why India’s two famous tigresses have a penchant for multiple sex partners

Sariska too, when its tiger population became zero, had its share of trouble with the five relocated tigers. Of the two new males, ST1 and ST4, STI were found poisoned with its radio-collar intact and no sign of the killers. But a bigger challenge awaited the three tigresses, ST2, ST3 and ST4. While ST2 took over four years to deliver her first litter of cubs, thereby casting a shadow over the future of the relocation programme, the remaining two tigresses ST3 and ST4 perished with the passage of time without becoming mothers even once.

Sariska’s fortunes change

It was, however, ST2’s first litter of cubs who – along with tight management by the forest authorities – changed the fortunes of Sariska. Today it boasts a healthy population of 28 tigers. Wildlife expert and the founding secretary of Sariska Tiger Foundation Dinesh Durani said he had seen the struggle and triumph of Sariska tigers and was sure the cheetahs in Kuno too would beat the odds and survive magnificently in their new home.

Points out Durani, “The most important task before a freshly relocated big cat is to make itself comfortable in its new forest range. Unless it reaches that level, it will be vulnerable to the forces of destruction. A tigress, until she finds the place suitable for rearing cubs, will simply not give birth. This is the reason behind our agonizing wait of several years to see ST2 with her first litter of cubs.”

Let us not rush and write obits. While it’s true that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, a few deaths won’t mean the end of Indian cheetahs either.

Also read: ‘Momentous event’: 4 cubs born to Kuno cheetah; minister shares pic, video

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