On a day that eight cheetahs were brought in from Africa as part of a historic reintroduction of the animal in India, leading conservationist Valmik Thapar listed worries about “how the big cat will walk, hunt, feed and bring up its cubs” at Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, where it faces “a lack of space and prey”.
“This area is full of hyenas and leopards, who are key enemies of the cheetah. If you see in Africa, hyenas chase and even kill cheetahs,” he said in an interview to NDTV. “There are 150 villages around, which have dogs that can tear cheetahs apart. It’s a very gentle animal.”
Speed vs space
Asked why the cheetah, the fastest mammal on earth, couldn’t just outrun its attackers, he cited the difference in terrain. “In places like the Serengeti (National Park in Tanzania), cheetahs can run away because there are large expanses of grassland. In Kuno, unless you convert woodland to grassland, it’s a problem… in quickly turning corners on stony ground, full of obstacles, it’s a huge challenge (for the cheetahs).”
“Can the government convert woodland to grassland? Does the law allow this,” he asked, rhetorically.
Originally, the plan was to relocate some lions from Gir (Gujarat) for a second population in Kuno, to prevent disease from wiping them out,” Mr Thapar said, apparently referring to moves around the year 2010, “But the Gujarat government did not agree.” The Supreme Court initially favoured lion translocation, but okayed the cheetah plan around two years ago.
Mr Thapar listed the tiger as another potential threat to the cheetah in Kuno: “Sometimes even tigers come here from Ranthambore, one of reasons why lions could not be relocated. That’s not often. But we will have to enclose that corridor too.”
What will they eat?
He also listed out problems in finding prey. “In the Serengeti, there are about a million-plus gazelles available. In Kuno, unless we breed and bring in blackbucks or chinkaras (which live on grassland), the cheetahs will have to hunt the Spotted Deer, which are forest animals and can hide. These deer also have large antlers and can injure the cheetah. And cheetahs cannot afford injury; it’s mostly fatal for them.”
“We needed to breed chinkaras and blackbucks already. Yet we wat to make history,” he said, “I am not sure why we are undertaking this at this level. There are a lot of problem with indigenous species. We need to find a balance.”
He said the cheetah has for long been a “royal pet” and has “never killed a human being”. “It is so gentle, so fragile. [The relocation] is a huge a challenge.”
Earlier today, wearing sunglasses and a safari hat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cranked the lever to release a pack of cheetahs from Namibia into a special enclosure in Kuno.
The Prime Minister — it was his birthday today — was seen clicking photographs of the big cats after releasing them. The cheetahs, five females and three males, will be kept in the quarantine enclosures for about a month before being released in the open forest areas of the park.
The creatures were declared extinct in India in 1952.
Valmik Thapar underlined that they don’t do well in breeding. “There are only about 6,500 to 7,100 left in the world. And the fatality rate (death at cub stage) is 95 per cent. Eight have been brought in for now, and more would be brought, going up to 35 over the years. It’s a huge task. They need to be monitored 24-by-7 to ensure they are living.”