Cheetahs miss August 15 deadline; what is stalling their journey to India?

Though the cheetahs were expected to reach India by August 15, a slew of issues, from delay in signing the MoU with South Africa to the ‘leopard menace’ in Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, has delayed the project

Cheetas India
Eight cheetahs were brought from Namibia in mid-September last year and housed in the KNP in Sheopur district. Representative photo: iStock

The return of the Cheetah to the Indian jungle, seven decades after the big cat went extinct here, may have to suffer another round of delay. The Centre has rejected three of the eight beasts which were chosen to be translocated from Namibia to India, as they were bred in captivity and couldn’t hunt in the wild.

India is all set to translocate 12 African cheetahs from South Africa and eight from Namibia to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary. While it has already signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Namibia in July, the same with South Africa is said to be in the last leg.

Also read: Cheetahs are coming back to India: The inside story of the homecoming

Wild, no home for the timid

As part of the first phase of the translocation project, eight African cheetahs – four male as and as many female – captured from the wild, were placed in a month-long quarantine in Namibia to check for any diseases or abnormalities before being sent to India.

However, Dr Yadavendradev Vikramsinh Jhala, dean of the Wildlife Institute of India, who is also one of the experts associated with the initiative, on his visit to Namibia found that three of the cheetahs couldn’t hunt in the wild. Forest officials in Madhya Pradesh have confirmed to the media that the three will be replaced by wild-caught cheetahs.

Explaining India’s decision, experts say that translocating cheetahs with no predatory instincts to Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, a habitat known for its leopard population, would be dangerous for the former.

While the Union Environment Ministry has said that no date has been finalised for the translocation, Madhya Pradesh’s forest minister Vijay Shah has told the media that the government is trying to get the big cats latest by first week of November.

South Africa yet to sign MoU

Even though the cheetahs were expected to reach India by August 15, to mark the country’s 75th Independence day, a slew of issues, from delay in signing of the MoU with South Africa to the ‘leopard menace’ in the cheetah enclosure of Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, have stretched the project’s timeline.

Officials privy to the project recently told the media that the MoU with South Africa has not been signed as its president Cyril Ramaphosa is yet to approve the deal. Earlier reports had said that the MoU was in its final stage.

Reports say while the cheetahs supposed to be translocated from South Africa have already completed one month of quarantine, those chosen from Namibia will complete the same by August-end or September.

Stating that the signing of MoUs in such projects take time, officials have hinted that the government may decide to lift the animals from both the countries together as it will be economical.

Kuno’s elusive leopards play spoilsport

For the past many weeks, officers of the state forest department and experts from the Wildlife Institute of India have been facing a hard time catching the elusive leopards of Kuno, who have made the 500-hectare area developed for the cheetahs at the sanctuary, their home.

The leopards have reportedly escaped all baits including drop-door cages, goat baits and cushioned snares.

Officials said that they have been able to catch only two leopards in a span of two weeks.

Also read: The road to return of the Cheetah is strewn with landmines

“Now, along with a cage trap, we have laid a foot trap also. In the cage trap, leopards ate the bait at least thrice and managed to escape. Cameras have also been installed to track the leopards,” an official told a reputed newspaper.

The forest department has taken the last recourse in employing two tuskers to evict the leopards from the cheetah enclosure.

While the initiative is being led by Kuno DFO PK Verma, NTCA IG Dr Amit Mallik visited the sanctuary on August 18 to take stock of the situation.

A section of experts, however say that the presence of leopards wouldn’t hamper the cheetah population much as they are highly adaptable cats and can co-exist with leopards, lions and hyenas inside the same reserve.

Pending CITES approval

India is also yet to get the approval of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to translocate the cheetahs.

CITES ensures that international trade dealing with wild animals does not threaten the survival of the species, and is the authorised body to allow import, export, re-export and introduction of such animals through a licencing system.

Cheetahs fall under the Appendix-I, meant for species threatened with extinction, of CITES. Its guidelines allow trade dealing with the species only in extraordinary circumstances.

But before the CITES approves the relocation, the scientific authority of the source country has to certify that the translocation of the animal wouldn’t affect the survival of the species and that the species wouldn’t be used for commercial endeavours.

Raising the issue recently, Namibia’s environment ministry’s chief public relation officer Romeo Muyunda said that Namibia can acquire an export permit only once India provides it with an import permit for the translocation of the cheetahs and the same has not been sent yet.

How will the translocation take place?

The cheetahs captured from the wild are currently in quarantine in South Africa and Namibia and have already been administered anti-rabies vaccine and screened for viral diseases and ecto and endo-parasites by an Indian team of veterinarians.

As per latest government correspondence to media, the cheetahs after spending one month of quarantine in their home country will be airlifted in chartered planes to either Jaipur or Gwalior airports in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh respectively.

The animals will be accompanied by a team of veterinarians from South Africa and Namibia and will be transferred to Kuno via choppers.

The translocation process is aimed to be completed within a 12-hour window.

Also read: Bringing cheetahs back to India has risks and opportunities: Expert

There have been various reports on whether the cats will be tranquilised during the transportation. While Jhala has told the media that the cheetahs will be mildly tranquilised during the journey, SP Yadav, member secretary, NTCA and additional director general of Project Tiger has said that tranquilising the animals is out of question as it may affect their health.

Once they reach India, the cheetahs will be kept in quarantine and observation for 30 days to check for any abnormalities of diseases before being released in the wild.

On the backburner for a decade

Initiated in 2009, the African Cheetah Introduction Project, had suffered a decade-long setback due to lack of required permission. In 2010, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had sought the permission of the Supreme Court to re-introduce cheetahs to India by importing them from Namibia. The Supreme Court had turned down the petition in 2013, stating that African Cheetah was a foreign species, but greenlighted the relocation of the big cats to a suitable habitat in an order on January 20, 2020.

Even though the project kicked off again, with the government aiming to re-introduce cheetahs in India by November 2021, it was once again pushed to the backburner due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Asiatic Cheetahs, the fastest land animal went extinct in India in the late 1940s due to incessant hunting of the species for sport as well as habitat loss. With the Asiatic Cheetah having gone extinct, India plans to re-introduce the African cheetah, a genetic sub-species, in the country.

The animal is considered vulnerable under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list of threatened species. It has a declining population of less than 7,000 especially in the African Savannas.