By Hugo Barcia
New Delhi, Jul 21 (EFE).- The death of eight African cheetahs that had been in India for less than a year as part of a project to reintroduce this species in the subcontinent has raised doubts about the viability of the program, despite calls for calm from the authorities.
Concerns were raised recently after two cheetahs were found dead in just four days for reasons still unknown. Some indications point to a possible negligence in the use of the radio collars to track the animals, which may have caused an infection.
These frequent deaths led to the dismissal this week of JS Chauhan as chief wildlife warden of Madhya Pradesh state, where the Kuno National Park is located.
Kuno National Park is where the first eight specimens of cheetah from South Africa and Namibia arrived last September, followed by another group of 12 in February.
When contacted by EFE, Chauhan declined to comment on the project, while his successor, Aseem Shrivastava, merely expressed confidence about the future of the Cheetahs, insisting that they were doing “everything possible with the help of experts”.
Other park officials too were reluctant to provide much information. Although they did not hesitate to confirm the deaths of the cheetahs a few weeks ago, of late they have evaded questions about recent developments.
This apparent secrecy apparently started with the confirmation of the death of the eighth animal of the “Project Cheetah,” as it is officially known. The first death was confirmed in March due to a kidney disease.
The seven deaths in the next four months, including three offspring from a litter of four born in March, were attributed to lung disease, clashes with other cheetahs or heat stroke.
Despite the project’s high mortality rate, experts appear confident that these setbacks are not unforeseen.
“Although five of the founder cheetahs have been lost, we should anticipate further mortality before year end. The loss of 50 percent of the founder population in the first-year post release is standard. Further losses in year two post release must be anticipated,” Vincent van der Merwe, head of the nonprofit “Cheetah Metapopulation” and in-charge of the relocation of cheetahs to India, told EFE.
From the second year onwards, these animals will begin to adapt to their environment, establish territories, know where other predators are, while the mothers will gain experience and give birth to new offspring that allow demographic replacement, he said.
“The population will struggle for at least the first five years and then hopefully stabilize around about year 4 or 5. Hopefully by year 10, we’ll have a population of at least 50 to 100 cheetahs in India,” he added.
“Project Cheetah” seeks to release 50 specimens of this species from South Africa and Namibia in India over the next five years, in order to reintroduce it into the country after its Asian variant went extinct more than 70 years ago due to indiscriminate hunting and the destruction of its habitats.
However, this will be a long process that will inevitably lead to errors, according to Van der Merwe, who cited the case of South Africa where more than 200 specimens died during the first attempts to reintroduce the species decades ago.
In the case of India, differences in weather, climatic conditions and terrain from Africa further complicate the process of reintroduction.
This was a factor that possibly factored in the deaths of the three cheetah cubs due to extreme heat in May, when in South Africa winter was setting in.
Meanwhile the heavy rains in recent weeks in India may have favored the growth of bacteria in the wounds caused by the radio collars in cheetahs, leading to infections that caused their death.
For the program to succeed, Van der Merwe stressed on the need for “super mothers” among the cheetah population.
“Individually cheetahs have a high mortality rate and wild cheetah populations are sustained by a very small number of highly successful females, particularly fit and fertile females that we call them super mothers that typically raise more than 10 cubs to independent adult age,” he explained.