Cheetah Deaths in India Mar Reintroduction Efforts

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For centuries, cheetahs roamed vast swaths of India and prowled among lions, tigers and leopards. They were declared extinct in 1952 after decades of hunting by princely rulers and British colonizers, shrinking habitats and vanishing prey.

Last year, the Indian government sought to bring cheetahs back by reintroducing the species to the country, bringing 20 in from South Africa and Namibia.

Those efforts suffered another setback this month after the death of a third cheetah in 45 days at Kuno National Park, a wildlife sanctuary in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. In the latest case, a female cheetah was killed during a violent interaction with two older males after they were put in the same enclosure for the purpose of mating.

Another male cheetah brought from South Africa in February died of apparent heart failure last month. And a female from the Namibia group, consisting of five males and three females, died of a suspected kidney ailment in March.

The three deaths prompted justices on India’s top court to implore the federal government to consider finding an alternative place for the newly resettled cheetahs.

“Kuno is not sufficient to accommodate,” said the Supreme Court bench of Justices B.R. Gavai and Sanjay Karol in New Delhi on Thursday. They were referring to the wildlife sanctuary, where the authorities have kept the cheetahs since their relocation.

“You are getting animals from abroad and there might a complete extinction at one place,” the judges added. “Why don’t you try for some alternate remedy?”

They suggested that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government consider moving some of the cheetahs to Rajasthan, and cautioned that politics should not play a role. “Merely because Rajasthan is ruled by an opposition party does not mean you will not consider it,” the justices said.

The government’s representative, Aishwarya Bhati, told the court that the deaths are being investigated and that other locations were under consideration.

A cheetah was sedated and prepared for transport to India at a veterinary facility in South Africa in February.Credit…Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

The violent mating death of the female cheetah known as Daksha raised some concerns that the cheetahs’ confinement at the Kuno sanctuary might have contributed to the males’ aggressive behavior.

Last month, a team of experts from South Africa suggested to Kuno park officials that two males should interact with Daksha. The gates of her enclosure were opened to two older big male cats, named Agni and Vayu, with whom she was brought to India in February.

Daksha died just hours after the two badly injured her during mating attempts. Jasbir Chauhan, a top conservator of forests, said the post-mortem report suggested that her skull had been “brutally crushed” by the two males and that her back was also badly injured.

“Those injuries caused her death,” Mr. Chauhan said. “We never expected that this will happen. This was an unfortunate incident.”

In an earlier interviewMr. Chauhan said the park officials did not have expertise in cheetahs and relied on the advice of the South African team.

When a male meets a female, experts say, interactions can be aggressive and usually intimidating for the female, whose territory often becomes limited during mating. If the female is not receptive, the male cheetah bites its own testicles.

A male coalition often surrounds a female, and if she tries to escape, they slap her and bite her, sometimes ferociously attacking her neck, head and vulva, and leading to death. Males end mating encounters only if they lose interest and move away, according to experts.

“All previous male-female interactions within large enclosures were cordial, so perhaps the monitoring teams became a little complacent,” said Vincent van der Merwe, an official at the Cheetah Metapopulation Initiative in South Africa, which is working with the Indian government to repopulate the top predatory cats.

Mr. Chauhan disagreed with that assessment, saying there had been detailed discussions about how to proceed with the mating sessions. “They know more about cheetah than what we do,” he said.

“They should have expressed the possibility of violent reaction.”

Mr. Merwe also said that the prolonged captivity of the cheetahs at Kuno had resulted in elevated stress levels among the big cats.

In 10 years, they had observed males killing females on only four occasions, he said. Most cheetah-on-cheetah mortality involves males killing other males.

Officials including Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, far right with a camera, watching a cheetah from Namibia being released at Kuno National Park last year.Credit…Press Information Bureau, via Associated Press

Some big cat experts also said Kuno, at about 748 square kilometers, was not suitable for cheetahs, which live in areas spread out over thousands of square miles. They may face risks from other predators and lack of adequate prey.

Earlier efforts to reintroduce cheetahs to India were unsuccessful. The latest attempt involves the Indian government’s plans to spend roughly $11 million over five years to determine whether the top predator population can be restored in parts of the country where they once thrived. Up to 40 cheetahs may be part of the program.

The cheetah species dates back about 8.5 million years, and its population is estimated to be fewer than 8,000, mostly in Africa and a few in Iran, down by half over the last four decades.

Part of folklore in rural India, cheetahs carry great symbolism. After reintroduction, Indian authorities believe a growing big cat population is likely to benefit broader conservation goals by improving general protection and ecotourism in areas that have long been neglected.

Researchers acknowledged that India’s plan to reintroduce the big cats was rushed and did not take into consideration spatial ecology. Kuno is small in size and cheetahs may stray far beyond its boundaries once the newcomers are released into the wild.

Ravi Chellam, a wildlife researcher, said that while the earlier two deaths were deemed natural by the authorities, the death of the female cat could have been avoided, adding that it was important to understand the context and reasons for the mortality.

Mr. Chellam said that a few deaths did not necessarily signal failure of the project, just as a few births did not indicate its success. (One of the Namibian cheetahs gave birth to four cubs.)

“All three cheetahs have died in captivity even before they have been released,” he said.

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