As India celebrates the historic arrival of the charismatic cheetah in its local forests after 70 years with much pomp and grandeur, the real challenge for the critically endangered wild cat has just begun. Far away from its natural habitat in a distant continent, the eight cheetahs, including three males and five females, would need a long time, before they actually accept India as their new home.
According to the Action Plan For Introduction of Cheetah in India envisaged by the Environment Ministry, the long-term success of the multi-crore project will depend on whether the feline species become an integral part of the ecosystem and maintain natural rates of survival — 70% for adults and 25-40% for cubs.
The long-term goal will be to develop a free-ranging, breeding founder population cheetahs. But for that, the cheetahs will need to establish a home range at Kuno National Park, the 748 sq km large landscape which remains unfamiliar to the sub-species of cheetah despite sharing similarities in climate and overall ecosystem with its distant continent.
However, on short-term, the government has laid out its criteria for success of the first phase of project, which includes achieving at least 50% survival of the introduced cheetahs for the first year, establishment of home range by cheetahs in Kuno so it can successfully reproduce in the wild, ensure that some wild born cheetah cubs survive to at least over a year, and the first generation breeds successfully. The project will be deemed unsuccessful in case the re-introduced cheetahs do not survive or fail to reproduce in five years.
After releasing two of the cheetahs in the special enclosure on Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too called for patience. “Today, I also want to make a request to all countrymen. We will have to show patience and wait for a few months to see the cheetahs released in the Kuno National Park. Today these cheetahs have come as guests and are unaware of this territory. We have to give a few months’ time to these cheetahs to enable them to make Kuno National Park their home. India is trying its best to settle these cheetahs following international guidelines. We must not allow our efforts to fail.”
Kuno can initially house up to 21 cheetahs, a number than can go up to 36. While the project hangs on the adaptive potential of the eight identified cheetahs, a rough estimate reveals that it could take not less than 15 years to reach a population size of 21, and reaching the landscape capacity of 36 could take almost 30-40 years depending on survival of the animals and supplementation of the prey base. But there are bigger challenges that makes this major re-location experiment one of the most daunting exercise in wildlife conservation.
Survival of The Fittest
One of the biggest challenges is the threat that cheetahs face from the native population of more strong and aggressive, competing predator species – leopards, striped hyenas, jackals which are far higher in number and can outcompete them. While cheetahs are normally known to avoid conflicts and use their lightning speed to protect themselves from other ferocious carnivores, they are likely to be at a disadvantage in an alien habitat, not native to them.
Apart from conflicts for territory and prey, their cubs may face direct risk from other predators. This is why most of the cheetahs in African landscapes are found to be roaming outside of the protected reserves, away from stronger predators.
Capability to Hunt Wild Prey
The survival of the fittest would also depend on their capabilities to hunt wild prey — the most critical for survival. While Kuno has a significant prey base, it remains to be seen if the animals are able to make the kill on their own. This is why the animals have been kept in fenced enclosures of around 6 sq km with several compartments for at least a month to allow them some time to adapt, and help authorities monitor their activities.
In order to ensure they get accustomed to hunting Indian prey species before their release into the wild, the park authorities plan to make natural prey available within the enclosure. The enclosures have been placed in a way that they can see for some distance to understand the environment and the presence of prey and predators before release.
The cheetah is believed to be one of the oldest surviving big cats, but it is extremely vulnerable to ecological and environmental changes, including loss of habitat. But one of the most serious concerns is the high cub mortality seen among the natural cheetah population across countries, considering it can go up to 50%.
But if it exceeds 50% post-reintroduction, it would call for appropriate management interventions. Apart from natural mortality, there could be deaths due to injury or accidents, or conflict with predators. Once the animals are released into the wild, they will be constantly monitored through radio-telemetry which will allow the authorities to actively manage any interventions in case cheetah venture into unfavourable habitats.
Another important consideration is their immunity. Since they come from a distant continent with a different epidemiological environment, they may not have the innate immunity that the native population of predators have, in case of any infection. With climate change, loss of habitats, altering the way pathogens exist, these disease risks are bound to increase. This is further aggravated due to lack of genetic diversity, which makes them more susceptible to diseases.
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