All photographs courtesy of Xander van Eerden.
Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) were once widely distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa all the way through to Asia. At the moment they are classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species – this is mainly due to habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict, and only around 7100 individuals are left in free-ranging populations. The human-wildlife conflict is mainly between the cheetahs and farmers, be it subsistence or commercial farming.
However, several other factors also contribute to the declining survival of this species, such as the illegal wildlife trade, conflict with other large carnivores, and failure of cheetah to thrive in captivity. A historic bottleneck in cheetah numbers leading to loss of genetic diversity is also suspected to contribute to their decline.
Currently, most of our spotted cats are located in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana in southern Africa and in Kenya and Tanzania in eastern Africa, with smaller populations found in central and north-western Africa. Iran is the only country home to Asiatic cheetahs, with only 12 individuals reported to be alive in 2022. In 1952, India officially declared all indigenous populations of cheetahs to be extinct. Since then, India has attempted to revive their cheetah numbers, with major efforts taking place in the 1970’s. This involved moving cheetahs from Iran, which still had a population of about 300 individuals at the time. Unfortunately, negotiations were terminated following the Iranian revolution and the removal of the Shah.
These Asiatic cheetahs are a subspecies of Acinonyx jubatus that can be genetically distinguished from their African counterparts and were once roaming throughout Asia, ranging from the Arabian Peninsula to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, recent genetic surveys revealed that the remaining Asiatic cheetahs are highly inbred, and attempting to revive such a small population is futile.
Finally, following two years of careful planning since India’s Supreme Court agreed to the introduction of cheetahs in 2020, a collaboration between the Indian and South African governments to relocate around 20 cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa to India was put in place. They will be moved to Kuno-Palpur National Park in the state of Madhya Pradesh, which was carefully chosen for its cheetah-friendly terrain. The park’s landscapes are very similar to those of southern Africa, with savanna, open grasslands, and the occasional forest. Kuno also contains ample prey with healthy populations of sambar, wild pig, chital, chinkara, nilgai and cattle.
The major difference between southern Africa’s parks and those in India, are that most of India’s parks and reserves are unfenced. India deliberately refrains from fencing their protected areas in order to allow wildlife to move more freely. As a result there is obviously the possibility that the cheetahs will move off and cause more human-wildlife conflict, or that isolation of some individuals may occur. Cheetahs are a wide-ranging species with large home territories, and Indian parks are on average much smaller than those in Africa, which will restrict their range to a certain degree. However, in Indian culture locals are discouraged to kill wild animals, and farmers are readily compensated for their losses. The cheetahs will also be carefully managed and monitored via satellite and VHF tracking collars placed around their necks.
The cheetahs to be relocated were chosen from reserves in southern African that contain highly successful breeding populations, with individuals being young animals of prime breeding age that are capable of surviving completely on their own. They will also be quarantined in facilities in Namibia and South Africa, where they will be tested for a number of diseases and vaccinated.
The introductory move containing the first group of cheetahs contained five females and three males, that were transported from Namibia to India by airplane, followed by a helicopter ride to Kuno National Park. The cats were released on 17 September 2022 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi into large, fenced camps where they will be quarantined for at least one month. This will assist in anchoring them to a central area and help create their new “home ranges”. After this, they will be released into the 115 000 hectare park.
Although this is an incredibly exciting project, we cannot ignore the fact that relocation and introduction of animals always contains some degree of risk, and cheetahs are known to have lower survival rates compared to other large carnivores. Their main threat will be leopard and possibly – to a lesser extent – sloth bears, striped hyenas and wolves. Cheetahs are small compared to other large carnivores and won’t come out on top in most fights. Their cubs are also targeted and killed by competing predators. These cheetahs will, however, have been exposed to lion, leopard, hyena, and wild dog in Namibian and South African reserves, and should know how to avoid these dangers.
The recent reintroduction of cheetahs to Malawi in 2017 was considered a massive success with an 80% survival rate, successful breeding, and population growth post-reintroduction. This hopefully provides an indication of this species’ versatility and ability to survive.
Additionally, as a result of habitat loss, there are few reserves and national parks that can accommodate cheetahs alone, let alone large numbers of them. In order to sustain these expanding populations, new protected areas for cheetahs need to be investigated. it is believed that Kuno National Park contains sufficient space, adequate prey and a low enough pressure from surrounding human populations to allow these cheetahs to survive, and even to thrive.
Returning cheetahs to Kuno aims to restore balance to their ecosystems through revitalization and diversification of India’s wildlife and habitats. Even though there are small genetic differences between southern African and Asiatic cheetahs, they play identical roles within these ecosystems. Through better management of Kuno National Park’s grassland-forest mosaic, India not only readies for the arrival of the cheetahs, but also assists with implementing a more comprehensive conservation approach that incorporates the entire ecosystem. This will benefit many of the park’s other species.
Experts are calling this project a “key experiment in conservation,” especially for cheetahs. After the relocation of the original 20 cheetahs, the plan is to continue sending small groups to India each year for the next five to ten years until a stable population has been established.