A senior official has been removed from his post in India after a project to relocate cheetahs from Africa led to eight deaths. This raised questions about the high-profile project.
Asiatic cheetahs became extinct in India by 1952, but their African counterparts were reintroduced last year as part of a plan led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Eight cheetahs were imported from Namibia, followed by another 12 from South Africa in February. Modi oversaw the release of the first cheetahs at Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh.
RNews earlier reported that eight of the cheetahs had died in the past four months. Authorities attributed it to natural causes.
However, the top wildlife officer in Madhya Pradesh, Jasbir Singh Chauhan, was transferred from his post by the forestry department on Monday. No reasons were given as to why he was removed from office.
Indian media linked Chauhan’s removal to the deaths of the cheetahs, citing sources who reportedly said there were concerns about the management of the project.
The Indian Department of Environmental Affairs said on Sunday that it is too early to say whether the program is a success or a failure, as it is a long-term project. The department added that global experience, especially knowledge from South Africa, has shown that the initial stages of relocating animals have a higher than 50% mortality rate.
However, conservationist Praveen Bhargav told AFP on Tuesday that the cheetah relocation program had a high chance of failure, as many fundamental issues were ignored. “I believe the prime minister was unfortunately misled by some bureaucrats and experts,” he said. “We don’t have the wide grassland habitats that the cheetahs need or the ecological conditions to undertake such a complicated resettlement.”
Arjun Gopalaswamy, a natural and statistical ecologist who studies large carnivores, said there must be more transparency about the causes of the deaths.
Officials said some of the animals may have died from infections caused by their collars.
RNews earlier reported that extreme wet weather conditions (in India) led to the collars causing infection in the cheetahs. Superficial wounds were observed on the cheetahs’ necks, but these were not caused by other animals. Rather, it was caused by an infestation of maggots which led to infection and sepsis.
The project’s start was “disappointing”, Gopalaswamy told AFP. Seven of the eight deaths occurred in the camps, “where such incidents were least expected”.
There is one possible exception – a female that was killed by a male during mating. However, a lack of information from authorities “masks the primary causes of all the deaths”, added Gopalaswamy. “From a scientific perspective, this ambiguity is worrying, because it prevents us from being able to learn from the incidents.”
Scientists from the cheetah research project at Leibniz-IZW in Namibia previously said the relocation program ignores “spatial ecology”, as the Kuno national park is much smaller than the spaces the big cats usually need to survive.
The relocation is the first intercontinental relocation of cheetahs and the program aims to import around 100 of the animals over the next decade.