The first generation of reintroduced cheetahs in India may need lifelong monitoring, says Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) founder Dr. Laurie Marker, emphasizing that success in projects like this is “not a quick, easy thing.”
Brought from Africa, cheetahs are used to predators such as leopards and lions. However, in India there could be losses due to interactions between species, the American zoologist and researcher told PTI in an interview.
The CCF has been closely assisting the Indian authorities in reintroducing cheetahs into the country. Since 2009, Marker has been to India on several occasions to conduct site assessments and design plans.
She said that growing a population with natural mortality will take time.
“We probably see potential success in 20 years or more. The numbers will be increased by Namibia and South Africa, which will keep the genetics clean and growing,” she said.
When asked about the factors that conservationists would consider to measure the project’s success, Marker said, “We’re looking at the adaptation of these animals, their hunting and reproduction, and our hope is that there will be more reproduction than mortality in the viable population.” , which should be bigger.”
“We’re also going to look at other habitats to put the animals in – which should be a metapopulation – and then we need to manage them. So it’s a very long and complex process,” she said.
Metapopulations are spatially separated populations of the same species that interact at some level.
Marker said she wants people in India and the world to realize that success (in projects like this) is not “quick, easy and takes a lot of time”.
She said the cheetahs may need to be monitored throughout their lives as following these animals as “the first on the ground” will be extremely important for research.
“We usually do this for the first generation of reintroduced animals to find out everything about them. They’ve been radio-collared for a period of time, and if permitted, we may collar them again,” Marker said.
The animals have been fitted with satellite collars so scientists can track their movements and monitor their health.
After their 30-day stay in the quarantine enclosure, the cheetahs would be released into a larger, more than six square kilometer enclosure to familiarize themselves with their new environment, where they would remain for at least a month before being released into the national park.
Their movements would be monitored by research teams, and if a lone cheetah strayed too far, they would be brought back.
In semi-arid regions of Namibia, cheetahs use their vast home range of around 1,500 km², while Kuno National Park (KNP) covers only 748 km²
The CCF and Indian authorities believe that the requirements for the size of cheetah home ranges in India will likely be “lower due to the more productive habitats”.
“We hope they don’t leave (the park). Ideally, they stay in the area. Their home ranges also depend on the amount of prey they have available, and there’s quite a lot of prey (at Kuno’s) and I’m hoping the habitat will keep them there,” the cheetah expert said.
“This is all research, one question. It’s the first time and we can’t answer any of those things. All we can do is come up with the best science we have to be able to guess what these cheetahs are going to do and plan accordingly,” she added.
Regarding the likelihood and outcomes of cheetah-leopard interactions, Marker said the two species coexist in Namibia and “some of these cheetahs originate from areas with lions.”
“There are tigers where they are right now and I don’t think it’s really going to be a problem. Losses can happen, however, as life in the wild is not a fairy tale. The animals are used to other predators, but we will have it to be very realistic. Resettlement is not easy. Bringing an animal back from extinction is not an easy process,” she said.
Leopards in the KNP – nine per 100 km² – are a major concern for authorities. In Africa, leopards attack adult cheetahs and spotted hyenas kill cheetah cubs.
KNP has occasionally reported the presence of tigers spreading out from Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, just 80km away.
She said the CCF teams will be in India for as long as is required.
“We will come and go here regularly to work very closely with the teams on the ground,” said Marker.
A CCF introduction team that accompanied the cheetahs to India will monitor them during their transition from the fenced enclosure to the national park and provide veterinary care and handling support.
The team will also provide indefinite support to KNP employees and field workers.
The cheetah has returned to India 70 years after the species was declared extinct in the country in 1952, mainly due to coursing, sport hunting, overhunting and habitat loss.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a statement on his birthday on March 17.