Cheetahs at Kuno National Park May Return to Enclosures for Examination, Drone Monitoring Being Considered: Officials

New Delhi, July 17 (PTI) Officials announced on Monday that all radio-collared free-ranging cheetahs at Kuno National Park (KNP) in Madhya Pradesh may be brought back to their enclosures for a thorough examination. Additionally, the use of drones to monitor the cheetahs’ movement in the wild is being considered.

BY | Tuesday, 18 July, 2023
Cheetah hunting a toy lure at Cheetah Conservation Fund, Otijiwarongo, Namibia (PC: Alexander Klink)

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) stated on Sunday that media reports linking the deaths of the cheetahs to factors such as radio collars were speculative and lacked scientific evidence.

However, experts involved in the cheetah reintroduction project acknowledged that a male cheetah from South Africa had died due to an infection caused by the radio collar.

An official who attended the Cheetah Project Steering Committee meeting on Monday stated, “All radio-collared cheetahs could be brought back to their enclosures for close monitoring.”

The official also mentioned that another expert from South Africa would be arriving at KNP on Tuesday to provide essential insights on cheetah observation and treatment.

During the meeting, the potential use of drones connected to radio collars for monitoring the cheetahs in inclement weather or over hilly terrain, including during the monsoon season, was discussed.

South African experts have requested the Indian government to keep them informed about the cheetah death investigation, additional planned measures, and related developments.

One of the experts involved in the cheetah project informed the committee that the loss of 50% of the founder population within the first year of release in the wild falls within acceptable standards.

The experts highlighted that no radio collar-related issues have been encountered in South Africa and emphasized the need for innovative management actions to prevent such mortalities.

They stressed the importance of exchanging southern African and Indian metapopulations to ensure long-term genetic and demographic viability.

The Ministry of Environment stated on Sunday that five out of the 20 adult cheetahs brought from Namibia and South Africa had died due to natural causes. The media reports attributing the deaths to factors such as radio collars were deemed speculative without scientific evidence.

Male cheetah Suraj, translocated from South Africa, died at KNP in Sheopur on Friday, while another translocated male cheetah, Tejas, died last Tuesday.

Rajesh Gopal, the head of the Cheetah Project Steering Committee, had mentioned that the cause of the cheetahs’ deaths could be septicaemia resulting from radio collar use.

“It is highly unusual. It is a cause for concern, and we have directed the Madhya Pradesh Forest department staff to check all the cheetahs,” he stated. “We have been using collars in wildlife conservation for around 25 years in India. I have never come across such an incident. We have good, smart collars available these days. Still, if such an incident takes place, we will have to bring it to the notice of the manufacturers.”

South African cheetah metapopulation expert Vincent van der Merwe suggested that extreme wet conditions might be causing the radio collars to create infections, potentially leading to the cheetahs’ deaths.

The ministry highlighted that the cheetah project is still ongoing, and it would be premature to judge its success or failure within a year.

Several steps have been planned to support the cheetah project, including the establishment of a Cheetah Research Centre with facilities for rescue, rehabilitation, capacity building, and interpretation.

Moreover, more forest areas will be brought under the administrative control of KNP for landscape-level management. Additional frontline staff will be deployed, and a Cheetah Protection Force will be established. The ministry envisions a second home for cheetahs at the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.

Under the Project Cheetah, a total of 20 radio-collared animals were imported from Namibia and South Africa to KNP. After the mandatory quarantine period, the cheetahs were moved to larger acclimatization enclosures. Currently, 11 cheetahs roam freely while five, including a cub born in India, remain within a quarantine enclosure. Each free-ranging cheetah is closely monitored by a dedicated team.

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