Not so fast: why India’s plan to reintroduce cheetahs may run into problems



slowmotiongli / shutterstock

Simon Evans, Anglia Ruskin University

A nature reserve in India could soon be the only location in the world to host wild populations of four major big cat species – tiger, lion, leopard and cheetah. Kuno-Palpur, in central state of Madhya Pradesh, may not be one of India’s best-known sanctuaries but it is certainly becoming one of its most controversial. In early 2020, the country’s supreme court agreed that wildlife authorities there could reintroduce the cheetah to India, 70 years after its local extinction.

Cheetahs once roamed across much of India and the Middle East, but today the entire Asian cheetah population is confined to just a few dozen animals in remote regions of Iran. The reluctance of the Iranian authorities to part with any of these rare creatures has led India farther afield in its attempts to secure a founder population. Currently, the favoured option is African cheetahs available from Namibia, which has the world’s largest population.

Map of Africa and Asia showing cheetahs former and current range.
The world’s 10,000 or so cheetahs live in a tiny portion of their former range.
Laurie L Marker / Cheetah Conservation Fund, CC BY-SA

Kuno-Palpur was identified as the preferred location for India’s relocation programme as it has large grasslands, ideally suited to the cheetah’s need to build up speed without worrying about trees or other obstacles. These grasslands were formed, in large part, through the removal of villages and rewilding of agricultural land to make way for the relocation of the Asiatic lion.

The Asiatic lion is itself an endangered species. Like the Asian cheetah it was once common right across India and the Middle East, but it now only survives as a single population of almost 700 in Gir Forest, a national park in the state of Gujarat, western India. Fears that a single disruption event – such as a disease outbreak or poaching epidemic – may be sufficient to consign the entire species to extinction, prompted the search for a second home for these big cats. This search ended in the identification of Kuno-Palpur, almost 30 years ago.

A lion sits and faces camera.
Asiatic lions are smaller than their African cousins, have smaller and darker manes, and all live in one forest.
Andrew M. Allport / shutterstock

In 2016 India’s supreme court, citing unacceptable delays, ordered the lion relocation process to be completed within six months. At the same time, the court dismissed a parallel application for the reintroduction of cheetahs, reasoning that it would be paradoxical to elevate the claims of an exotic subspecies (African cheetahs) over those of an endemic (Asiatic lions).

Today there are still no lions in Kuno-Palpur, although it does retain a stable leopard population. This non-compliance has been widely attributed to parochial politics, wrapped up in what has been described as Gujarati pride. Despite the fact that all wildlife is deemed a national resource under the Indian constitution, Gujarat appears determined to hold on to its state monopoly on the creatures.

Then, in early 2020, the court made an unexpected U-turn and gave the green light for cheetah reintroduction to begin. Some experts questioned the science behind the decision. For example they point out that the cheetah is a wide-ranging species, known to travel across areas up to 1,000 sq km in a single year. Indian parks tend to be much smaller than those in Africa, offering less chance for such free movement. And, while the habitat is currently suited to cheetahs – and lions – some fear that it may ultimately evolve into dry, scrubby forest more suited to tigers.

A cheetah chases after a small antelope.
Springbok hunting in Namibia.
Elana Erasmus / shutterstock

There is also credible evidence that tigers are already dispersing to Kuno-Palpur as animals from a reserve in neighbouring Rajasthan seek to escape territorial over-crowding. This suggests there is a functioning wildlife corridor between the two reserves, a stated priority for Indian conservation.

This is not a simple issue to resolve. As the supreme court is increasingly called upon to adjudicate between the various factions, so these conundrums are likely to intensify in the future. There is no science available currently to suggest that cheetahs, lions, tigers and leopards can coexist comfortably in the same habitat. It has never occurred anywhere else before, so there is no real-life experience to draw upon.

In my research for a forthcoming book on tigers I found India’s wildlife is becoming increasingly commercialised and much of what we accept as rational conservation can just as easily be viewed through an economic lens – one that reflects the benefits of tourism. On the surface, the cheetah scheme feels more like a vanity project than a conservation imperative; no doubt a boon for wildlife tourism but maybe also a presenting a threat of intra-species and human-wildlife conflict.The Conversation

Simon Evans, Principal Lecturer in Ecotourism, Anglia Ruskin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Daytime sightings of elusive aardvarks hint at troubled times in the Kalahari



Disappearance of aardvarks from dry ecosystems could have devastating consequences for the many other animals that rely on their burrows.
Kelsey Green

Robyn Hetem, University of the Witwatersrand and Nora Marie Weyer, University of the Witwatersrand

Aardvarks are notoriously elusive, nocturnal mammals. They generally hide in their underground burrows during the day and emerge at night to feed exclusively on ants and termites. Aardvarks are widespread throughout most habitats of Africa south of the Sahara, except deserts. But their actual numbers are not known because they’re so elusive.

Aardvarks top the bucket list of many wildlife enthusiasts, but few have been fortunate enough to see them – until recently. Daytime sightings of aardvarks are becoming more common in the drier parts of southern Africa. But seeing them in the daytime does not bode well because it indicates they might not be finding enough food.

To understand how aardvarks cope with hot and dry conditions, we studied them in the Kalahari, one of the hottest and driest savannah regions in southern Africa in which aardvarks occur. Our study took place at Tswalu, a private reserve in South Africa that supports research through the Tswalu Foundation. We equipped wild, free-living aardvarks with biologgers (minicomputers) that remotely and continuously recorded their body temperature (an indicator of well-being in large mammals), and their activity. Each aardvark also received a radio-tracking device, allowing us to locate them regularly. Tracking the aardvarks provided clues on how they changed their behaviour in relation to environmental stressors in the different seasons and years of our three-year study.

Our study found that in drought periods, aardvarks struggled to find food. It was difficult for them to maintain their energy balance and stay warm during the cool night, so they shifted their active time to the day. Some died from starvation. Given the aardvark’s importance to ecosystems, these findings are a concern.

Comparison of Aardvarks at night and day
Aardvarks usually emerge from their burrows at night (left), but during drought periods, they are increasingly seen during daytime (right).
N. Weyer

Aardvarks are important ecosystem engineers

No other mammal in Africa digs as many large burrows as the aardvark. Dozens of mammals, birds and reptiles use aardvark burrows as shelter from extreme heat and cold, protection from predators, or a place to raise their young. In many of South Africa’s conservation areas, temperatures have already risen by 2℃ over the past 50 years. Further warming by 4-6℃ by the end of the century has been projected.

With deserts and drylands expanding across much of Africa, climate change might threaten the aardvark itself as well as the many animals reliant on aardvark burrows as a cool shelter from rising temperatures.

During typical years, aardvarks were active at night and were able to regulate their body temperature between 35-37℃.

Aardvark active at night during non-drought times
Aardvark active at night during non-drought times.
adapted from Weyer et al., 2020, Frontiers in Physiology, https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2020.00637

However, this pattern changed during two severe summer droughts that occurred in the Kalahari during our study. During the droughts, aardvarks shifted their activity to the daytime and their body temperature plummeted below 30°C.

Using remotely-sensed vegetation data recorded by NASA satellites and our own camera trap footage and logger data, we showed that these dramatic changes in body temperature and activity of aardvarks were related to the availability of grass, on which their ant and termite prey rely. When grass was scarce during droughts, the ant and termite prey became inaccessible to aardvarks, preventing them from meeting their daily energy requirements. As their body reserves declined, aardvarks were unable to sustain the energy costs of maintaining warm and stable body temperatures and shifted their activity to the warmer daytime.

Aardvark active in the daytime during drought
Aardvark active in the daytime during drought.
adapted from Weyer et al., 2020, Frontiers in Physiology, https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2020.00637

Shifting activity to the warmer daytime while food is scarce can save energy that would otherwise be spent on staying warm during cold nights. But, for our aardvarks, even these energy savings were insufficient during drought, when the ground was bare and the ant and termite prey inaccessible. As a result, seven of our twelve study aardvarks and many others died, presumably from starvation.

A bleak future for aardvarks in a hotter and drier world

On the Red List of Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, aardvarks are currently categorised as a species of “Least Concern”. However, we consider aardvarks to be threatened in the drier parts of their distribution in Africa, such as the Kalahari, where climate change brings about droughts. Disappearance of aardvarks from these ecosystems could have devastating consequences for the many other animals that rely on the aardvarks’ burrows.

We hope that our findings will raise further awareness about the consequences of climate change and inform future wildlife conservation and management decisions. Such steps might include assessments of the actual population status of aardvarks across Africa, or mitigation measures to preserve species that depend on burrows for refuge in regions where aardvarks might go locally extinct. More extensive measures, like water-wise reserve management, increasing sizes and connectivity of nature reserves in semi-arid regions, and reducing emissions to mitigate climate change, are just as urgent.

Finally, any solution to the plight of climate change on free-living animals requires a better understanding of their capacities to cope with drought. Therefore, many more long-term comprehensive studies are needed on the physiology and behaviour of the vulnerable animals living in hot, arid regions of the world.

Nora Marie Weyer’s disclosure statement has been updated.The Conversation

Robyn Hetem, Senior Lecturer, University of the Witwatersrand and Nora Marie Weyer, PhD – Wildlife Conservation Physiology, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.