India’s much vaunted Project Cheetah ill-conceived and being killed off by red tape

NEWS AND COMMENT: You may have heard about Project Cheetah. It is the relocation of, initially, 20 cheetahs from Namibia, Africa to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, India. The cheetah was extirpated in that country by 1953 due to man’s mismanagement and cruel exploitation. The grand relocation plan envisaged there would be 500 cheetahs in the park but a zoologist based in Karnataka, K. Ullas Karanth, claims that the plan is ill-conceived because the ultimate goal of 500 cheetahs would require a landmass of 1500 mi² to accommodate them satisfactorily. Kuno National Park covers an area of 290 mi². It is fenced by human settlements. Space problems in the national parks of India are a real problem concerning tiger conservation. Same issues.

Project Cheetah.
Project Cheetah. Screenshot from video.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Secondly, a South African wildlife vet who sits on the steering committee of Project Cheetah, Adrian Tordiffe claims that the project is being brought down by politics and red tape. He believes the project is mismanaged at national and local level which threatens its future.

He did not envisage such an obstacle. He thought there might be other kinds of problems as there nearly always are with wildlife relocations but he now says that “There are a few problems that we didn’t anticipate. Probably the biggest is the political structures in place in India”. He claimed that a culture of fear was preventing officials and vets sharing information with wildlife experts as reported by The Times newspaper of July 31, 2023.

In response, in a rather huffy statement, India’s environment ministry said that such reports were based on “speculation”. The ministry blames natural causes or infighting for the deaths.

In an indication that Tordiffe’s assessment is true, Yadvendradev Jhala, the former lead scientist of the project claimed that he was forced to retire. This led to international experts on the steering committee being sidelined according to The Times report.

Cheetahs relocated from Africa to India may be self-harming due to GPS collars irritating them
Cheetahs relocated from Africa to India may be self-harming due to GPS collars irritating them. This may lead to infections and death. Image: MikeB

There were claims, too, that the GPS collars around the necks of cheetahs might have caused the death of two of them. This is because the conditions are very humid and the GPS collars were causing minor injuries which resulted in an infestation of maggots which poisoned the cheetah. At the moment this is unconfirmed. I wrote about that on a different which you can read by clicking on this link if you wish.

Five of the cheetahs imported from Africa have died according to Adrian Tordiffe. The first two adult cheetahs to die succumbed to illnesses linked to breeding and relocation. The third was a female killed by two aggressive males when she was put into an enclosure. Information about the fourth and fifth deaths has been withheld by Indian officials.

Tordiffe said that, “I was getting very little information from the vets”. He compared the stonewalling to Soviet mismanagement of Chernobyl!

Karanth (the person who said the project is ill-conceived) remarked that, “If you live in India, if you work with the Indian government system; if you don’t understand it, please don’t get involved in projects.” Yes, it seems like you have to put up with a lot of sh*t.

Comment: it would seem that Tordiffe fell out substantially with the authorities. Project Cheetah is very important to the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who held a review of the project. I think he is very keen for India to be seen to be successful on wildlife conservation. Personally, I’d say it is hard to make a claim that India is good at conservation as, for example, tiger conservation is stagnant and going nowhere.

The Supreme Court asked the government why cheetah deaths were becoming a “prestige issue” for the country. It seems that the project has become somewhat of an embarrassment for the authorities in India who put a lot of emphasis on it.

It has been very high-profile and much publicised in the news media. It’s gone wrong. It might not be terminally wrong and it might succeed in the end but at the moment it is failing and perhaps the reasons mentioned above are to blame in part.

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