The death of eight African cheetahs at the Kuno National Park is raising alarm bells about the ambitious project to introduce these big cats in India. We look at what is going wrong—and why.
Editor’s note: We will return with the last instalment of our series on the Uniform Civil Code as soon as the news cycle allows us:)
Researched by: Rachel John & Aarthi Ramnath
First, a quick Kuno refresher
We have explained every aspect of the Cheetah Project in two previous Big Stories. The first looked at the history of cheetahs in India, the rationale for the project and its critics. The second laid out the details of the grand plan—and examined their chances for survival. Below is a brief recap.
The history: Cheetahs were once native to India—but were driven into extinction by hunting during the colonial era. The government has been attempting to restore the population soon after it was declared extinct in the 1950s. PM Indira Gandhi took the first real step toward its return in the 1970s—when the Department of Environment formally wrote to the Iranian government to request a trade of Asiatic lions for its cheetahs. Unfortunately, the Shah of Iran was deposed soon after—and Gandhi was distracted by the Emergency. The government reached out again in 2009—but was flatly rejected. And in 2012, the Supreme Court nixed the project calling it “misconceived.”
The latest effort: kicked off in 2020 thanks to a push from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). The Supreme Court did a U-turn in the same year—and greenlit the introduction of cheetahs on “an experimental basis.” Over the past year, the government has relocated a total of 20 cheetahs from Africa to Kuno—eight from Namibia and 12 from South Africa. The first batch were brought in on PM Modi’s birthday in 2022.
The rationale: The government has given many reasons justifying the project—from meeting climate goals to restoring grasslands (explained at length in this Big Story). But the key motivator has always been national pride—“to get back what we have lost.” As a Wildlife Institute of India official put it: “Now that India is in a condition where it is economically possible to restore our lost heritage, we have restored all the protected areas where cheetahs can be brought back to.”
A string of poorly explained deaths
Starting in March, eight cheetahs—including three cubs—have died. The reasons offered in each case have been muddled and worrying.
Sasha: was the first casualty. She died in her enclosure due to kidney failure—allegedly from a disease that predated her relocation to India. This condition is not uncommon among cheetahs, but as one scientist asked: “Why was she brought across for this high-profile introduction if it was known that she was not a wild and functional animal?”
Uday: The six-year old male died in an enclosure within the park on April 2—a little over a month after he was brought in from South Africa. The reason: an unexplained brain haemorrhage. A South African expert said the previously free-ranging wild cheetah could not cope with being enclosed:
Like the 11 others, he was a wild cheetah. He was very healthy before shifting to Boma in July 2022 for the translocation project. After 10 months in captivity, he lost fitness and suffered from chronic stress… The cheetahs must go back into the wild where they belong. They are unhappy in cages.
Another speculated that the cause could be “botulism, toxins entering the body either through prey or water, which may have affected his nervous system.”
But, but, but: Government officials dismissed any cause for concern—even though two of them died within a single month:
The forest department will evaluate the reasons for deaths and will devise a strategy to save other cheetahs. A large number of cheetahs were brought to India because of the high fatality rate. There is no need to make it (the deaths) a big issue.
Daksha: was mauled to death by two males—Agni and Vayu—during a mating attempt on May 9. Wildlife officials defended themselves—pointing out that a previous attempt to mate another female Siyaya had gone well. And the environment ministry said any intervention “would have been practically impossible” during the violent mating. Also: such deaths are not rare in the wild: “Cheetahs killing other cheetahs account for about 8% of cheetah mortality in the South African metapopulation,”
But, but, but: A number of biologists said wildlife officials may not have exercised due caution:
Several biologists… suggested that inducing the process in captivity could have worsened the situation – with limited choice of males, the female may have been disinterested in mating. In such a situation, giving a male cheetah access to a female not in heat can increase the chances of injuries to the female. “While this instance could have happened in the wild too, being in captivity could have reduced her chances of getting away, if she intended to do that to protect herself,” Pawar said. “The mating should have been avoided in captivity.”
Three cubs: born in the enclosure in March to Siyaya died over the course of three days—starting May 21. The reason: malnourishment and dehydration. Officials blamed the intense heatwave that sent temperatures soaring to 46-47°C.
Again, experts blamed them for not doing enough:
They [the cubs] actually died of starvation and dehydration. You must have left them unmonitored for a really long time and when you do see them, you have got nothing to compare the assessment with because you’re seeing these cubs on the Indian soil for the first time.
Park officials may have been afraid to intervene—to avoid the mother rejecting her cubs. But she had already done so because “she was a first time mother, she neglected them and she didn’t know what was happening.” At the very least, it indicated that there was far less expertise at hand than required.
Tejas & Surya: died on July 11 and July 13. They both likely died due to infections caused by their radio collars. After months of doubt, suspicion and debate, their deaths finally made it crystal-clear that Project Cheetah is in trouble.
The radio collar debacle
This time around, both wildlife officials and experts agree: Tejas and Surya died due to infections caused by their radio collars—due to wet conditions during monsoon. Here’s what happened according to a South African expert involved in the relocation:
Possibly because of the humid or wet weather, water accumulates underneath the collar and causes the skin to be constantly wet. This condition attracts flies, the flies lay eggs, and the fly larvae—or maggots—feed on tissues and create wounds that get infected and can lead to systemic infection.
And this is what the chief conservator of forests in Madhya Pradesh JS Chauhan conceded:
An infection breaking out because of the radio collar due to the monsoon is a possibility. In these cases, because of high moisture, the cheetah may scratch its skin, which can break and an infection can break out after contact with a fly. It may also be one of the reasons for the cheetah deaths.
The wounds start at the neck and as the larvae crawl along the cheetah’s back, they extend to other parts of the back: “This is an area that cheetahs cannot clean and lick away the larvae.” In the end, the two cheetahs died of organ failure due to septicaemia.
The evidence: There are damning images of neck injuries:
And even an NDTV video:
Why radio collars: Animals are routinely radio collared without consequences. But experts say the South African version is made of a synthetic material that works fine in dry conditions—but is a hazard when it gets wet.
The government’s response: The environment ministry remains bizarrely defiant—unwilling to accept the cause of death. It dismissed reports on the radio collars as “speculation and hearsay”—and insisted that all eight deaths were due to “natural causes”:
There is no lapse behind any of the cheetah deaths. Even in the case of the deaths of the three cheetah cubs, global wildlife literature clearly mentions 90% per cent infant mortality among cheetahs.
Worrying point to note: JS Chauhan—the senior official who conceded the radio collar theory—has been transferred out of his job. The other cheetahs that have been brought in also show similar neck injuries—though there may be still time to save them—but it requires bringing them back into captivity:
If their wounds are minor, they can be treated with long-acting antibiotics and insecticides on their skins which will prevent maggots from damaging their skin, he said. But such treatment would mean bringing the free-ranging animals back to camp, removing their collars and ensuring they are in enclosures until the monsoon is over (since wet conditions would mean that repeated treatments are required).
Data point to note: The battle between experts and the government is about numbers—how many deaths are ‘normal’ in a project like this? The vast gap between their assessments is evident in the argument over the three cubs:
But two different forest officials argued that the deaths were not out of the ordinary, and that even in the wild, cubs have a low survival rate, of 5%. [senior biologist Dr Ravi] Chellam noted, however, that the Kuno deaths had occurred in captivity, and pointed to a study conducted between 1975 and 2005, which found that the average survival in captivity for cubs aged between one and 12 months was 71.3%. Chellam maintained that though the study was conducted in a captive breeding facility, and that the conditions at Kuno were significantly different, the high mortality rate seen in the latter was very worrying.
The bottomline: Experts say the government’s insistence on denying facts is counterproductive and entirely unnecessary:
The project is an experiment with inherent uncertainties and unpredictable outcomes. There should be no pressure to hide anything that takes place…Conservationists learn from each event, honing a model for cheetah introductions.
What the cheetahs need is expertise not debate.
Scroll has the best overview of most of the deaths—and debates over negligence. Also worth a read: The Guardian’s report on why the project is flailing. Independent has an excellent report on what experts are saying about radio collars—and the most recent casualties. The Print looks at how the most experienced conservationist YV Jhala was pushed out of the project—the cheetahs started to die soon after.