/ 17 May 2023

Conservation potential being ‘squandered’ by SA-India cheetah project

Cheetah 1
The controversial 10-year translocation endeavour will drain African cheetah populations and scarce conservation resources, say wildlife experts

Exporting African cheetahs to India has a limited scientific basis and places the translocated animals at risk, with no evidence that it will benefit African cheetah conservation.

This is the charge by wildlife experts in South Africa, who have published a hard-hitting critique on South Africa’s involvement in Project Cheetah. India wants to restore the only large carnivore, the cheetah, that died out in independent India after the Asiatic cheetah was declared extinct in the country 70 years ago.

The controversial 10-year translocation project between South Africa and India seeks to expand the cheetah metapopulation and introduce cheetahs to a former range state. It will see 12 of the big cats sent from South Africa to India annually.

“Failed conservation actions waste money and can result in sink populations where species decline and ultimately may go extinct,” wrote the experts in their commentary, published in the South African Journal of Science. “We, therefore, cannot afford any failed conservation efforts and poor conservation decisions should be avoided.”

The authors are Kelly Marnewick, of the department of nature conservation at Tshwane University of Technology; Michael Somers, the chair of wildlife management at the University of Pretoria; Jan Venter, of the department of conservation management at Nelson Mandela University (NMU) and Graham Kerley, of the Centre for African Conservation Ecology at NMU.

The Asiatic cheetah is extinct in India and “should not be replaced”, without appropriate scientific consideration, by the African cheetah, the authors maintained. 

Conservation concerns

The recent translocation of 20 African cheetahs — eight from Namibia and 12 from South Africa — to the unfenced Kuno National Park in India aims to establish a free-ranging population of cheetahs in and around the release site, with further multiple translocations planned from South Africa. This “raises concerns regarding the scientific basis of these translocations and their contribution to conservation”. 

They pointed to recent statements by the project’s scientific advisory members that it is actually an “experimental reintroduction of cheetahs into India”, suggesting that the outcome is uncertain, and raising additional ethical concerns. 

The population of the Asiatic cheetah in Iran holds the only remaining members of the subspecies, an estimated 50 mature individuals. 

“Genetic evidence points to historical translocations of African cheetahs to India, and others even suggest that the cheetah was never indigenous to India. This makes the Iranian population even more valuable as it does not appear to have been hybridised through anthropogenic [human-caused] contact with the African cheetah. The genetic integrity of the African and Asian cheetah lineages should therefore be maintained.” 

The recovery of the Iranian population could, in the long term, with “concerted conservation and political investment,” provide more appropriate animals for the Indian restoration project, with direct conservation value to the subspecies and a low risk of compromising genetic integrity. 

“Related cheetahs will need to be removed from the Indian population on an ongoing basis to ensure that inbreeding does not occur and to allow for demographic management of the population. Clearly, this introduced population is, therefore, not viable and will need recurring supplementation, representing an ongoing drain on African cheetah populations and scarce conservation resources.”

Exceeding prey base 

With 20 cheetahs already introduced, three subsequent deaths, the birth of four cubs and another possible pregnancy, the population of more than 23 cheetahs could likely be exceeding the capacity of the prey base at Kuno, they said, noting the viability analysis, risk assessment and data for the project “are not available for scientific scrutiny”. 

“As such, it is impossible to evaluate what risks were identified and how they were mitigated. This is particularly important in this scenario in which the animals are likely to come into contact with novel pathogens, unknown and unpredictable ecological interactions … a high poaching threat and undefined conflict with humans.” 

The felines are expected to be returned to Africa for “demographic management” or through experimental failure and the “African cheetah population will be exposed to unknown risks from these returned animals”. 

In South Africa, there is no formal, peer-reviewed metapopulation management plan for cheetahs in fenced reserves. Management of these cheetahs is “fragmented and not formally goal-driven” at a national level.

“Data for the metapopulation, upon which the sustainability of the India project is assessed, remain unpublished, including population size, growth rates, sex ratios, demand for cheetahs in South Africa and the number of cheetahs needed to maintain the metapopulation.” 

Claims of South Africa having “excess cheetahs” in the metapopulation are used to support the Indian reintroduction, yet there is no data to support this. 

Not supporting cheetah conservation

Conservation projects should not compete by consuming funds or redirecting the limited funding available, the authors said, describing how the Indian cheetah project will cost about $50 million to $60 million to create three small populations. 

“This funding could be used for in situ projects that directly benefit the conservation of extant Indian wildlife, for example, tiger and Gir lion conservation or cheetahs in Africa. Scarce conservation habitat should be allocated to the conservation of indigenous species and not be occupied by exotics, as per the tiger ‘conservation’ projects in South Africa … and the proposal to take rhinos to Australia.”

Sending African cheetahs to India on an experimental basis generates the perception of an excess of African cheetahs and, by extension, that African populations no longer need conservation. “Yet, at a continental scale, the cheetah is in decline.” 

Fewer than 7 000 wild cheetahs remain, primarily in African savannahs.

“There are areas in Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Angola, and several West African countries of sufficient size, with sufficient prey, that could be restored for cheetahs within 10 years, either naturally or through assisted recovery if effective conservation action is taken.”

There have been several successful reintroductions into such areas, where cheetahs sourced from South Africa were reintroduced into well-protected parks. Restoration projects in these countries directly benefit cheetah conservation and local ecosystems in the African subspecies’ historical range.  

“They indicate a growing need for African cheetahs within Africa, rather than an excess.  Clearly, these cheetahs should remain part of Africa’s natural heritage and be used to maximise the conservation of African species and benefit African people.”

Welfare compromised

The 50% mortality rate of cheetahs predicted for the Indian reintroduction is much higher than the observed survival rate of 85% for reintroductions in the metapopulation in South Africa. 

“Ten of the current tranche of 20 cheetahs are expected to die as a consequence of this translocation with more to follow. It appears that the welfare of the animals is being compromised through a lack of mitigation of threats to their post-release survival and inadequate fencing and the conservation potential of the animals is being squandered.” 

The South African fenced metapopulation model for cheetah conservation is unique. These cheetahs are maintained in fenced reserves, away from human populations and livestock and are generally habituated to vehicles and often also to people on foot. The cheetahs sourced from Namibia were wild-born, but have been maintained in captivity, making them habituated to people and unsuitable for release in the larger reserve.

There is evidence that the female cheetahs taken to India from Namibia have not been “rewilded”, will not be released into the larger reserve, and have been allowed to breed in fenced enclosures as part of a captive-type breeding project. 

“Therefore, these animals may not be ideal candidates for creating a founder population of wild cheetahs in an area where people and livestock are not excluded, as planned in India.” 

Human-wildlife conflict

The potential for human–wildlife conflict is elevated when habituated animals come into contact with humans and their livestock, the commentary said.

Two cheetahs have already left the reintroduction site. 

“One roamed more than 20km into a village where villagers, fearful for the lives of their children and livestock, threw stones at the cheetah and it was possibly injured. The cheetah has been returned to the park. The other cheetah is still at large and has reportedly triggered panic among the surrounding villagers.” 

If the prey base becomes depleted from unsustainable predation, as suggested, then “breakouts can be expected to increase”. 

A more coordinated and science-based approach to cheetah conservation globally is needed, particularly in light of the recent warning that cheetahs are in a more precarious position than indicated by their current IUCN “vulnerable” status.

Establishing a cheetah sink out of Africa “will threaten African (and Asian) cheetahs and undermine South Africa’s reputation as a science-based leader in the conservation management of large mammal populations”, they said.