On a modified B-747 that took off from Windhoek, Namibia, for Gwalior on Friday, are eight Namibian wild cheetahs — five females, three males — would-be founders of a new population in Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh.
A plan to reintroduce cheetahs in India that was endorsed in 2009 by then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh was shot down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The idea was revived in 2017 by the Narendra Modi government, and the SC cleared the move in 2020 “on an experimental basis”.
The cheetahs will arrive before dawn, before being transferred by helicopter to Kuno, where they will be released in specially erected enclosures by Prime Minister Modi.
The cheetah facilities have been developed, staff has been trained, and leopards larking in the enclosures have been moved away. Yet, everyone involved will keep their fingers crossed for the success of the first ever transcontinental mission to introduce African cheetahs in the wild.
Wild cargo: from menageries to conservation
For centuries, royal menageries across the world collected wildlife, often shipping them from distant shores of Africa, Asia, and the New World. Emperor Charlemagne (747-814) built three menageries in the present-day Netherlands and Germany that housed lions, bears, and the first jumbos to land in Europe since the Roman war elephants.
Moving wild animals to new locations for conservation, however, began only in the 1960s. Unlike royal imports to be held in captivity, these animals require to settle down and survive in their new locations in the wild. That poses a host of different challenges.
Translocation: Failures and successes
In the 1960s, South Africa’s last surviving white rhinos were transported across the country, primarily from KwaZulu-Natal province. Between 1991 and 1997, the country’s Madikwe Game Reserve reintroduced more than 8,000 animals of 28 species including lions to rebuild stocks.
In the US, cougars were translocated from Texas in 1994 to increase the genetic diversity of the remaining Florida panther population. In 1997, wolves from northwestern Montana were relocated to Yellowstone National Park, where they went extinct by the 1970s.
Similar efforts have been made in India. In 1984, rhinos were shifted from Assam’s Pobitora to Dudhwa in Uttar Pradesh. More recently, Kaziranga rhinos have been translocated to Manas within the state to build a new population. In 2011, bisons were shifted from Kanha to Bandhavgarh where they went locally extinct.
The success stories that made bigger headlines involved tigers. Two new populations were built through translocation in Sariska (Rajasthan) and Panna (Madhya Pradesh) where the big cat went locally extinct due to poaching.
Besides, the practice of capture-release to locally shift so-called problem animals, particularly leopards, from the sites where they happen to cause panic among people, continues in several states despite a central guideline against it.
What translocation must watch out for
As translocation gained currency as a conservation tool (as well as for boosting hunting stock or tourism), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a union of governments and civil society organisations, in 1995 came up with a guideline which has been updated since.
While the conservation goals — either reinforcement within a species’ native range (like tigers moved from Ranthambhore to Sariska) or assisted colonisation outside its range (like African cheetahs coming to India) — of translocation are well defined, the associated risks present a complex matrix:
* Genetic diversity: It is often difficult to find genetically suitable animals, particularly for building a new population, when the source population itself is closely related. This can lead to inbreeding depression in the new population.
* Habitat and prey base: The factors that caused a species to lose numbers or go extinct must be dealt with to secure the habitat, before restocking so that colonies of reintroduced animals become large enough as quickly as possible to withstand fluctuations in both the environment and population size, experts say. Physical security, enough space, and ample food are the priorities.
* Landscape viability: Simply releasing and moving animals between pocket forests can at best halt further habitat fragmentation in the name of a charismatic species. Even if such assisted exchanges succeed in ensuring genetic viability, animals will remain susceptible to demographic and environmental events in such a broken landscape.
Curbing the cats’ homing instincts
Another tricky challenge in translocating animals is to factor in their homing instinct. Most animals, from snails and frogs to birds and cats, have an uncanny ability to sense direction and, if displaced, find their way back.
In the case of big cats, this not only risks losing the released animal from the target site but also invariably conflict with people coming in the way of a homebound carnivore walking through unfamiliar territory.
One solution is to put the animal in an enclosure — a soft release — at the new location, and allow it time to settle down. The other remedy is to select sub-adult animals for translocation. Being at dispersal age and still looking to establish its own territory, young cats have a higher chance of accepting a new area.
Neither approach is foolproof, though. In November 2009, a young tiger was shifted from Pench tiger reserve to Panna. Upon arrival, it was kept in an enclosure for eight days. Once set free, the young male took time to survey the new location, and on the 11th day started walking southward.
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With four elephants and 70 teams of government officials and volunteers behind him, the tiger walked 440 kilometres in 30 days towards Pench through Chhatarpur, Sagar, and Damoh districts before it was finally intercepted and brought back to Panna.
To minimise such possibilities, the government’s Cheetah Action Plan says that radio-collared males will be released from the holding enclosure after 4-8 weeks and that the presence of females in the enclosure will keep them in the vicinity.
A senior forest official involved in the project, however, wondered if the African imports could indeed show homing tendencies “a continent and an ocean away” from home. That is just another curiosity — one of the many firsts of this transcontinental mission.