What is Episode 87 all about?
In today’s episode, we’re going to take another deep dive into a very recent headline that was just released a couple days ago. In case you missed it, eight African cheetahs are being translocated to India. Yes, the rumors are true, India is about to have all five of its traditional big cat species back within its borders.
Instead of me analyzing this breaking news story, I phoned a friend, someone you all have heard more than once, and who happens to personally know the scientists in charge of this historic move – Stotra Chakrabarti, PhD. Stotra is literally in India at this very moment and we’ve been WhatsApping back and forth about this translocation and lots of other stuff. I asked him if he’d be game to send me audio responses to my questions and he said yes! You all know I can’t keep this amazing information to myself. I’m always thinking about how I can get breaking information out to you, too. And so, Stotra with all of his connections and wisdom kindly opened my eyes to aspects of this historic translocation that I didn’t know anything about and I’m excited to share them with you, too.
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What’s the background of this story (kind of like our previous interview)? Why is the move happening (i.e. cheetahs extirpated from India since 1950s)?
[Stotra]. Asiatic cheetahs got exterminated in India by the late 1940s (last documentation was ~1948). Since the past decade, a plan for reintroducing cheetahs to India has been in the works/talks; cheetahs to promote the conservation of grasslands/Open Natural Ecosystems as a flagship-charismatic-umbrella species
Why aren’t Asiatic cheetahs being translocated to India?
[Stotra]. Currently, the only surviving wild population of Asiatic cheetahs are found in Iran and their numbers are as low as 30 animals. Actual estimates are contentious, but the population is tiny and hence cannot be used as a source for establishing a new population in India
Do you know why Namibia cheetahs are being translocated versus other African countries?
[Stotra]. Cheetahs will be sourced not just from Namibia but also from South Africa. Why?
The IUCN reintroduction guidelines (IUCN 2013) define reintroduction “as the intentional movement and release of an organism inside its indigenous range from which it has disappeared” while in the case where the original indigenous organism is not available then the guidelines suggest to use the most suitable existing sub-species, or a close relative of the extinct species within the same genus that is similar in appearance, ecology and behavior to the extinct form; this is referred to as Conservation introduction. The locally extinct cheetah-subspecies of India (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus; Charruau et al. 2009, O’Brien et al. 2017, Rai et al. 2020) survive as a small relict population in Iran currently numbering ~30 individuals (Kalatbari et al. 2017) and are considered as critically endangered with a declining trend (Durant et al. 2015). An important consideration for conservation translocations is that the sourcing of animals should not be detrimental for the survival of the source population (IUCN 2013). The founding population should also be genetically diverse, behaviorally appropriate, of ideal age and sex composition, able to adapt to the climatic, habitat conditions, and prey types of the introduction site, and be available in reasonable numbers for supplementation of the introduced population over a sustained period of time (IUCN 2013). Since cheetah from Iran are clearly unavailable and inappropriate as a source for reintroduction to India, the best alternative needs to be determined that meet the above criteria.
The next ideal choice for the founder population would be from populations that were genetically, ecologically and behaviorally closest to the extinct cheetah in India. Amongst mammals’, cheetahs are recorded to have one of the least genetic diversity and are more similar to each other across their entire extant range when compared to other species (Dobrynin et al. 2015). Therefore, the considered opinion of cheetah geneticists from across the world after careful evaluation of all published scientific studies on cheetah genetics is that all sub-species of the cheetah are equally close to A. jubatus venaticus (Annexure 5) and therefore genetic considerations do not play an important role in selecting a founding population in comparison to other criteria mentioned above. The criteria for the source would be the availability of a continuous supply of legally obtained healthy cheetah that are genetically diverse, can hunt wild prey, are wary of humans but not overly skittish so that managing them is difficult, and sourcing for introduction in India would not imperil source populations. Since India currently does not have any native cheetah, the ecologically and behaviourally most suited population that meets the source population criteria (IUCN 2013) would suffice the need since there would be no genetic mixing of subspecies. The only population that currently meets the above stringent requirements of a source for India’s efforts to introduce the cheetah are from southern Africa (A. j. jubatus; South Africa, Namibia, Botswana). This region holds the largest cheetah populations ~ 4000 (about 66% of the global cheetah population) (Durant et al. 2015) and meets the required criteria for a source for translocation and for future supplementations without detrimental impacts on the source populations.
Are there any biological/physiological concerns for African cheetahs being moved to India?
[Stotra]. I don’t see any strong biological/physiological concerns for African cheetahs being moved to Kuno because the habitats are similar. The prey system would be novel for the cheetahs but carnivores quickly adapt. Other stressors that are associated with such ambitious and bold conservation programs that involve long-stance transport of founders can be reduced through medical assistance, soft release of animals and post-release monitoring. The Indian government is committed to fulfill all of these duties
Why was Kuno-Palpur national park chosen as the place to relocate these cheetahs?
[Stotra]. From the 10 potential sites evaluated for the feasibility of establishing cheetah populations in India based on IUCN guidelines for reintroductions that consider species viability based on demography, genetics and socio-economics of conflict and livelihoods , Kuno NP in the state of Madhya Pradesh was considered ready for receiving cheetah with the least management interventions since a lot of investments had been done in this Protected Area for reintroducing Asiatic lions.
Kuno NP covers an area of 748 km² made free of all human habitation through incentivized voluntary relocation of forest settlements and is located in the Sheopur district of Madhya Pradesh . The NP and adjoining buffer area is part of Kuno Wildlife Division which covers an area of 1235 km2 (Kuno Management Plan 2020). The perennial Kuno river flows through the Park. The western side of the river is dominated by hills with medium to steep slopes while the eastern bank falls towards the valley and therefore has flatter terrain with gentle medium slopes and flat river valley. The contiguous habitat patch is about 6800 km² with a high potential for cheetah occupancy in over 3200 km².
Will these cheetahs run into conflict with tigers?
[Stotra]. Currently there are no tigers in Kuno, but there are leopards. I am certain that there is enough space for the predator guild to coexist.
Will this move affect your lions?
[Stotra]. Lions have not reached Kuno for a political deadlock. However, bringing cheetahs to Kuno might not be the end of lion reintroduction. Instead, we can still bring lions once the weaker competitor species of the two (cheetahs) have established and are aware of the hideouts and escape terrains so that they can escape any ihtra-guild predation by lions
Do you know the timeline and when the cheetahs will officially be in India?
[Stotra]. It seems that they should reach India before Aug 15, 2022.
What do you foresee as the future of this historic move? Tourism, the species, etc.?
[Stotra]. It would definitely set a precedence of a bold conservation move, championing a strong narrative of active management in India. It would be a strong impetus for grassland conservation in India; grasslands and open Natural Ecosystems are highly undervalued in the protection regime in India. While I don’t know if the area where cheetahs are to be brought in would be open to tourism soon, but surely this move would garner a lot of publish interest towards conservation through a charismatic addition to the Indian carnivore guild.
What do you foresee as the future of this historic move? Tourism, the species, etc.?
[Stotra1]. Super excited, I am at the edge of my seat. This would be a historic opportunity for research as well. I am very optimistic knowing India’s commitments to conservation and personally knowing the scientific community who are leading this effort – the program is in good hands!
Links & Resources
Headlines for Additional Reading
- AFP. (21 July, 2022). “Wild cheetahs, declared extinct within India by 1952, to arrive from Namibia soon”. The New Indian Express. https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2022/jul/21/wild-cheetahs-declared-extinct-within-india-by-1952-to-arrive-from-namibia-soon-2479139.html
- Banfield-Nwachi, Mabel. (21 July, 2022). “Wild cheetahs to return to India for first time since 1952”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jul/21/wild-cheetahs-to-return-to-india-for-first-time-since-1952
- Butts, Dylan. (22 July, 2022). “Wild cheetahs to prowl in India for first time in 70 years”. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/wild-cheetahs-prowl-india-first-time-70-years-rcna39504
- Osborne, Margaret. (21 July, 2022). “Cheetahs Will Soon Be Reintroduced to India”. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/cheetahs-will-soon-be-reintroduced-to-india-180980455/
- Shad, Nadeem. (20 July, 2022). “Cheetahs to prowl India for first time in 70 years”. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-62239811
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