Thenext month are being prepared for their trans-continental journey. Quarantined in two different bomas, or small, fenced camps, they are part of the first batch of 20 cheetahs that India will receive as part of its plan to reintroduce cheetahs to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh. Eight others are being sourced from Namibia.
The cheetahs have already received their first vaccines and will receive a second vaccination dose on Saturday, besides undergoing blood tests to check for diseases. They will also be collared Saturday so that they get used to the tracking devices in advance.
Addressing concerns of gene flow in such a small group of cheetahs, which will initially be housed only at the Kuno National Park before its expansion to other areas, Veterinary wildlife professor Adrian Tordiffe, of the University of Pretoria, said that South Africa already had similar projects within the continent, in which measures are taken to ensure gene flow. Gene flow is the transfer of genetic material from one population to another.
“The problem of gene flow is exactly the problem that we face in South Africa with our own cheetah population. Most of the cheetahs are found in small, privately owned reserves which are not close to each other and are rather spread across the country. But under our cheetah metapopulation programme, we are constantly moving the cheetahs around to ensure healthy gene flow. We have been doing this for the past ten years, between the 50 reserves that are a part of the programme,’’ said Tordiffe.
The university has partnered with the Wildlife Institute of India and India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority and represents the South African government in the project. South Africa runs similar programmes with Malawi and Mozambique as well.
“The cheetah was locally extinct in Malawi, for example. So it was a completely new reintroduction. We are moving cheetahs from South Africa to Malawi, and then back to South Africa, which are then exchanged with new blood from the South African side. We have been monitoring the genetic variations,’’ he said.
The professor added that despite the trans-continental distance, the travel to India was not likely to take much longer than travel within Africa.
The cheetahs will be flown on planes to India, and then again, by helicopters to the Kuno National Park. In Africa, this journey is often made by either road or a hybrid mode of air and road.
“This population size will not be limited to this first batch. Over the next five-ten years, five-ten cheetahs will be relocated to India annually. We anticipated that from time to time, we will be bringing back some of these cheetahs from India, and taking some others there,’’ he said.
When the translocation of cheetahs first began in Africa just over a decade ago, the mortality rate of the animal in transit was as high as 20 per cent. This has been brought down. “The University of Pretoria has been brought in to ensure that there is a zero mortality rate during the translocation to India,” he said.
The translocation project is equally beneficial to Africa, in particular to South Africa, as it will be to India. The South African cheetah population had dwindled two decades ago, before the conservation programme ensured that the numbers increased to 500. In the Kalahari desert, the cheetah is critically endangered because of poaching and hunting. But now, with healthy female cheetahs producing five-six cubs each, South Africa is rapidly running out of space for its cheetahs.
“There are no new reserves where they can be kept. And with a genetically healthy population, the numbers are growing even within these comparatively small private reserves. If this continues, the cheetah will decimate the prey in these areas. And we may need to start using contraceptives on cheetahs to control the population. This will be very unfortunate as once contraception is used, there is no guarantee that the female cheetah will regain fertility once the effect of the contraceptive wears off. We need to look at cheetahs as a global population, a meta-population, instead of breaking them into fragments of small species – which I think is a terrible idea. Especially…when the genetic difference between the African and Indian cheetahs is so small, and the ecological functions are practically the same,’’ he said.
In Africa, the endangered northern white rhino and southern white rhino were kept separate, as a result of which both species dwindled alarmingly. “Of course this can’t be done with all species, such as the Arabian and South African leopard in which the differences are quite significant,’’ Tordiffe added.
The professor further said the Asiatic lion could be introduced in the same parks as the cheetah. They share the same space in Africa. “But the cheetah must be introduced first and once it is well established, the lion, which is the bigger predator, can be introduced,” he said.
According to Tordiffe, a challenge that the reintroduction may face is that the Kuno park’s large population of leopards could pose a threat to cheetah cubs. But this is a problem that the wildlife conservationists involved in the project are addressing, he said.