General Studies Paper 4

Context: India’s ambitious Cheetah Translocation Project is facing a new set of challenges as two cheetahs have died, bringing the number of cheetahs left in the project to 18 out of the initial 20. Uday, a six-year-old male cheetah, died on April 23, 2023, in Kuno National Park, and Sasha, a five-year-old female cheetah, died on March 27, 2023, in the same park. Therefore, the government is now considering alternative conservation models, such as the South African model of conserving cheetahs in fenced reserves.

Were these Deaths Expected?

The project anticipated a high mortality rate, and its short-term goal was to achieve a 50% survival rate for the first year, which is 10 out of 20 cheetahs.

However, experts pointed out that the project had overestimated Kuno National Park’s carrying capacity for cheetahs, and this added pressure on the project staff to look for alternative sites.

Causes of Death:

  • A South African study found that predation was the biggest killer, accounting for 53.2% of cheetah mortality. Lions, leopards, hyenas, and jackals were primarily responsible.
  • Cheetahs suffer very high cub mortality – up to 90% in protected areas – mainly due to predation.
  • In Africa, the lion is the chief predator of cheetahs; in India, where lions are absent (except in Gujarat), leopards are likely to slip into that role in potential cheetah landscapes.
  • Other causes of mortality can be holding camps, immobilization/transit, tracking devices, and other wildlife killing cheetah (cubs) including warthogs, baboons, snakes, elephants, crocodiles, vultures, zebras, and even ostriches.

South African Model for Conserving Cheetahs:

  • In South Africa, a conservation strategy called meta-population management was used to protect cheetahs.
  • This strategy involved moving cheetahs from one small group to another to ensure that they have enough genetic diversity and to maintain a healthy population.
  • This approach was successful in maintaining a viable population of cheetahs in South Africa; in 6 years, the meta-population grew to 328 cheetahs.

What are the Options Available to the Project?

  • The authorities are exploring the possibility of preparing Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary in the Chambal River valley as the second home for cheetahs.
  • Another option is to move a few cheetahs from Kuno to the safety of an 80-sq-km fenced area in Rajasthan’s Mukundra Hills Tiger Reserve.
  • However, both options would mean shifting the project’s goal from establishing the cheetah in an open landscape to managing the African imports as a few pocket populations in fenced-in or restricted areas.

Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary

  • It is located in Madhya Pradesh on the northern boundary of the Mandsaur and Nimach districts, adjoining Rajasthan
  • The landscape is characterized by vast open landscapes and rocky terrain
  • The vegetation includes northern tropical dry deciduous forest, mixed deciduous forest, and scrub
  • Some of the flora found in the sanctuary are Khair, Salai, Kardhai, Dhawda, Tendu, and Palash.
  • The fauna includes Chinkara, Nilgai, Spotted Deer, Striped Hyena, Jackal and crocodiles.

Mukundra Tiger Reserve

  • It is situated near Kota, Rajasthan, in a valley formed by two parallel mountains, Mukundra and Gargola.
  • The valley is bounded by four rivers – Ramzan, Ahu, Kali, and Chambal – and drained by their tributaries.
  • Protected area:
  • Mukundra Hills was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1955 and a National Park (Mukundra Hills (Darrah) National Park) in 2004.
  • It was declared a Tiger Reserve in 2013, becoming the third in Rajasthan after Ranthambore and Sariska.
  • Parks and sanctuaries:
  • Mukundra TR consists of three Wildlife Sanctuaries – Darrah, Jawahar Sagar, and Chambhal – and covers four districts of Rajasthan: Kota, Bundi, Chittorgarh, and Jhalawar.

Way Forward

  • The success of the cheetah project should align with India’s traditional conservation ethos. India’s conservation approach emphasizes protecting naturally dispersing wildlife in viable non-fragmented habitats.
  • The Cheetah Project can choose to cut the risk by settling for the South African model of retaining a few pocket populations in fenced-in reserves.

However, keeping cheetahs in leopard-proof enclosures might not be a sustainable solution. Also, repeated sedate-and-recover interventions to restrict cheetahs to sanctuaries and national parks can harm the animals.

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