Wildlife Institute of India Comes up with Action Plan on Cheetah Introduction in MP
Fifty cheetahs will be introduced in Kuno Palpur National Park (KNP) in Madhya Pradesh in the next five years. Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav made the announcement while launching an Action Plan for the Introduction of Cheetah in India prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) during the 19th meeting of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). He applauded that the Project Cheetah will bring back this charismatic species that went extinct (in 1952) and conserve the fast disappearing grassland and savanna ecosystem that the species inhabits.
SP Yadav, member secretary of NTCA, said, "The International Union of Conservation of Nature's Reintroduction Group has painstakingly developed guidelines for conservation practitioners in a manner that covers all aspects of a conservation translocation project. Conservation practitioners across India who will be involved with this project will find the action plan as an appropriate guide for implementing this project."
Since there are only 30 individuals of the locally extinct cheetah-subspecies of India (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) inhabiting Iran, and they are critically endangered with a declining trend, so the only population that wildlife experts found viable was in Southern Africa ( South Africa, Namibia, Botswana). This region holds the largest cheetah population, around 4,000 (about 66% of the global cheetah population). There will be no issue of cheetah supplementation to India in the future.
KNP was approved as the first site for translocation since it was found intrusion free after all the local people of 24 villages living inside the park were rehabilitated outside. All the prior arrangements with regard to the required level of protection, prey, and habitat were in place to house the cheetahs. As per the action plan, KNP (748 km2) is estimated to have a current capacity to sustain 21 cheetahs, and if the surrounding area (6,800 km2 spanning Sheopur-Shivpuri dry deciduous open forest ) is accounted for where the dispersers would colonise the landscape, then the number can soar up to 36 individuals.
YV Jhala, head of the WII team who will assist in the cheetah translocation, told NewsClick, "The efforts to establish other selected areas (Nauradehi and Gandhisagar Protected Areas) have commenced in the form of incentivised voluntary relocation of human settlements, prey supplementation, and habitat management through weed removal and livestock grazing control. These additional protected areas will accommodate the rest of the 50 cheetahs."
Laurie Marker, executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, in an earlier given interview to the reporter over mail, had said, "In general, cheetahs have good adaptability to survive in a variety of ecosystems. In a translocation process executed carefully in stages, they will smoothly adapt to the new environs."
She also cautioned to avoid mistakes, such as leaving the animals without any support and monitoring after translocation in the forest areas. "Selection of wrong animals definitely lead to failure irrespective of the other factors such as merits of location, the project or the local community," she said.
All the concerns raised by Marker have been duly addressed in the WII's action plan.
As per the action plan, about 12-14 wild cheetahs (8-10 males and 4-6 females) that are ideal (the reproductive age group that is genetically diverse, disease-free, behaviorally sound, not overly imprinted to humans but tolerant, predator wary, capable of hunting wild prey, and socially tolerant of each other) will be chosen as a founder stock for establishing a new cheetah population in India.
The plan involves vaccination of all dogs in the vicinity to prevent the spread of rabies. Once selected and transported, the method of soft release of animals into KNP will be applied wherein the cheetahs will be kept in predator-proof enclosures for a month or two with prey availability before setting free in the open KNP. This method would reduce their tendency to disperse long distances from their release site and help them adapt to the area.
All the founder cheetahs would be fitted with satellite/GPS/VHF collars enabled with a ground data download facility. Radio-telemetry would assist in daily monitoring of the newcomers' movement, behaviour, predation, conflict, and mortality. The collaring of individuals will be reduced or eventually stopped after the third generation of the cheetah population.
Marker also emphasised upon running the program with the support of the local communities. Therefore, to ensure the long term success of the project, local communities living around KNP are being taken into confidence through various awareness. A local mascot named "Chintu Cheetah" and an associated slogan, "Mein tez dor kar aaonga, aur Kuno mein bas jaonga" (I will come fast and settle down in Kuno) is getting popular among the masses. People have also been assured that any livestock depredation by the cheetahs would be immediately and effectively compensated.
Jhala believes that there are negligible chances of human-animal conflict with the cheetah, unlike other big cat species.
He said, "Cheetah is a timid animal which has never injured or killed any human in wildlife history. So there is no threat to locals from the cheetahs. Rather local people will benefit from several livelihood and wildlife tourism opportunities emerging after Cheetah introduction in Kuno."
Since the Ranthambore tiger reserve is just 60 km away from Kuno, the cheetahs' interaction with roaming tigers will remain a possibility, while there is a good leopard population that inhabits the KNP
Jhala further explained, "Cheetahs avoid confrontation, be it with humans or any other predators. It relies on its strong limbs to gain speed and runs away from a confrontation. It lacks muscle power which other feline species has. The animal is fully aware that any injury during a confrontation can lead to his starvation and death."
He said, thanks to the escapist strategy of the cheetah, it can comfortably live with other large cats.
The action plan also mentioned that once a cheetah population is established in KNP, reintroducing the lion or colonisation by tigers would not be detrimental to cheetah persistence. It also recommended the prospect of housing four large felids of India - tiger, lion, leopard and cheetah to coexist in Kuno as they did in the past, after thorough study.
The interaction between leopards and cheetahs will be closely monitored in the park. Based on this research, management strategies to permit and promote coexistence or to manage the carnivore populations of the four feline species - cheetah, lion, tiger and leopard- will be decided for the future.
The cheetah conservation programme will be a long drawn affair. The action plan clearly laid out that the long-term (at least 25 years) Cheetah Programme, involving financial, technical and administrative commitments, needs to be guaranteed by the Central and state governments to adhere to the action plan. Cheetah conservation should become a part of the mandate of the National Tiger Conservation Authority and under the Project Tiger Scheme of funding by the environment ministry.
At present, the Centre will provide funds to the tune of Rs 91.65 crore during Phase-1 of the work. The states will bear the cost of staff salaries and overall area management.
According to the action plan, the short term parametres of project success will be 50% survival of the introduced cheetahs for the first year. Cheetah establishes home ranges in KNP. The species successfully reproduce in the wild. Some wild-born cheetah cubs survive more than one year, and Cheetah-based revenues contribute to community livelihoods.
At present, the biggest hurdle is the delay caused by the pandemic. MK Ranjitsinh, the legendary conservationist associated with the cheetah project, said, "It is important that the project progresses in free flow fashion without any hindrance. The pandemic has become the biggest problem for us."
Madhya Pradesh forest and wildlife officials are keeping their fingers crossed as well. Alok Kumar, principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) told NewsClick, "The work of building enclosures, which had got tad delayed due to COVID-19, is completed in time. Like any other project, the Cheetah project may get delayed by a couple of months as the delegation of government officials, scientists, and experts could not meet their counterparts in South Africa for the same reason. However, we all are anxiously waiting for cheetah to make Kuno their home."
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