Cheetahs miss Aug. 15 deadline; what is blocking their journey to India?
Although the cheetahs were expected to reach India by August 15, a host of issues, ranging from the delay in signing the memorandum of understanding with South Africa to the ‘leopard threat’ in the wildlife sanctuary of Kuno, delayed the project.
The cheetah’s return to the Indian jungle, seven decades after the big cat went extinct here, may face another round of delays. The Center rejected three of the eight beasts that were chosen for transfer from Namibia to India because they were bred in captivity and could not hunt in the wild.
India is ready to transfer 12 African cheetahs from South Africa and eight from Namibia to Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. While he already signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Namibia in July, the same with South Africa is said to be in the final stage.
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Wild, no home for the timid
As part of the first phase of the translocation project, eight wild-caught African cheetahs – four males and as many females – were quarantined for a month in Namibia to check for any illnesses 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, discovered during his visit to Namibia that three of the cheetahs could not hunt in the wild. Madhya Pradesh forestry officials have confirmed to the media that the three will be replaced by wild-caught cheetahs.
Explaining India’s decision, experts say transferring cheetahs without predatory instincts to Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, a habitat known for its leopard population, would be dangerous for the former.
While the Union Environment Ministry said no date had been set for the transfer, Madhya Pradesh Forestry Minister Vijay Shah told the media that the government was trying to get the big cats no later than the first week of November.
South Africa has not yet signed a memorandum of understanding
Even if the Cheetahs were to reach India by August 15, to mark the 75e On Independence Day, a host of issues, ranging from the delay in signing the Memorandum of Understanding with South Africa to the ‘leopard threat’ in the cheetah enclosure at Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, have extended the project schedule.
Officials familiar with the project recently told the media that the memorandum of understanding with South Africa had not been signed because its president Cyril Ramaphosa had not yet approved the deal. Earlier reports had indicated that the MoU was in its final stages.
Reports say that while the cheetahs supposed to be transferred from South Africa have already completed a month of quarantine, those chosen from Namibia will complete the same by the end of August or September.
Stating that signing memorandums of understanding in such projects takes time, the officials hinted that the government may decide to withdraw the animals from the two countries together as it would be economical.
Kuno’s elusive leopards play spoilsport
In recent weeks, state forest department officials and experts from the Wildlife Institute of India have struggled to catch the elusive Kuno leopards, which have made the 500-hectare area developed for cheetahs in sanctuary, their home.
Leopards would have escaped all bait, including drop-door cages, goat bait and padded snares.
Officials said they were only able to catch two leopards in the space of two weeks.
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“Now, in addition to a cage trap, we have also set a foot trap. In the cage trap, the leopards ate the bait at least three times and managed to escape. Cameras also been set up to track leopards,” an official told a reputable newspaper.
The Forest Department took the last resort by employing two tusks to evict the leopards from the cheetah enclosure.
While the initiative is led by Kuno DFO PK Verma, NTCA IG Dr. Amit Mallik visited the sanctuary on August 18 to provide an update on the situation.
A section of experts however claim that the presence of leopards would not hamper the cheetah population much as they are very adaptable cats and can co-exist with leopards, lions and hyenas inside the same reserve.
Pending CITES approval
India has yet to secure Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) approval to translocate the cheetahs.
CITES ensures that the international trade in wild animals does not threaten the survival of the species and is the authorized body to authorize the import, export, re-export and introduction of these animals through a licensing system.
Cheetahs fall under Appendix I, designated as endangered species, of CITES. Its guidelines allow trade in the species only in extraordinary circumstances.
But before CITES approves the relocation, the scientific authority of the country of origin must certify that the translocation of the animal will not affect the survival of the species and that the species will not be used for commercial purpose.
Highlighting the issue recently, Namibian Environment Ministry Public Relations Officer Romeo Muyunda said that Namibia can only acquire an export permit once India provides it with an import permit. for the translocation of the cheetahs and that this one has not yet been sent.
How will the translocation take place?
The wild-caught cheetahs are currently in quarantine in South Africa and Namibia and have already been vaccinated against rabies and screened for viral diseases and ecto- and endoparasites by an Indian team of veterinarians.
According to the government’s latest correspondence to the media, the cheetahs after spending a month in quarantine in their home countries will be airlifted in chartered planes to 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 helicopters.
The translocation process must be completed within 12 hours.
Read also : Bringing cheetahs back to India comes with risks and opportunities: Expert
There have been various reports as to whether cats will be tranquilized during transport. While Jhala told the media that the cheetahs would be lightly tranquilized during the trip, SP Yadav, NTCA member secretary and additional chief executive of Project Tiger, said tranquilizing the animals was out of the question as it could affect their health.
Once in India, the cheetahs will be kept under quarantine and observation for 30 days to check for any abnormalities of the diseases before being released back into the wild.
Shelved for a decade
Launched in 2009, the African cheetah introduction project suffered a decade-long setback due to a lack of required permission. In 2010, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) sought permission from the Supreme Court to reintroduce cheetahs to India by importing them from Namibia. The Supreme Court had denied the petition in 2013, declaring the African cheetah an alien species, but gave the green light to relocating the big cats to suitable habitat in an order dated January 20, 2020.
Even though the project has restarted, with the government aiming to reintroduce cheetahs to India by November 2021, it was again pushed back on the back burner due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Asiatic cheetahs, the fastest land animal, became extinct in India in the late 1940s due to relentless hunting of the species for sport as well as habitat loss. With the Asian cheetah extinct, India plans to reintroduce the African cheetah, a genetic subspecies, to the country.
The animal is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. It has a declining population of less than 7,000, especially in African savannahs.