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.

Why cheetahs in the Maasai Mara need better protection from tourists



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In parts of the Maasai Mara its not uncommon to see more than 30 tourist vehicles at a sighting.
Femke Broekhuis

Femke Broekhuis, University of Oxford

The global cheetah population is continuing to decline with only about 7000 individuals left in Africa. This is thought to be about half the population that existed 40 years ago. The decline has been caused by the loss and fragmentation of their natural habitats, a decline in their prey base, the illegal trade in wildlife as well as conflict with humans for space.

Cheetahs have disappeared from 91% of their historic range. This is hugely problematic as cheetahs are a wide-ranging species. To be viable a cheetah population needs a contiguous, suitable habitat which covers about 4,000–8,000 km2. But few protected areas in Africa are larger than 4,000 km2.

As a result, most of the cheetahs in the world – 77% – are believed to range outside protected areas. But this isn’t ideal for the animals as, from previous research we conducted using data from GPS satellite collars fitted on cheetahs in the Maasai Mara, we found that cheetahs avoid areas of high human disturbance and prefer protected, wildlife areas.

These results show the importance of wildlife areas for cheetahs, but my most recent research shows that these protected spaces have challenges of their own. We found that the number of cubs a cheetah is able to rear is lower in areas that receive lots of tourists compared with areas that are visited less. This suggests that cheetahs aren’t getting the protection they need, particularly from the impact of growing numbers of tourists.

Maasai Mara

Kenya’s Maasai Mara has one of the highest cheetah densities in the world, but it’s a landscape that is under increasing human pressure.

Famous for its spectacular wildebeest migration, the Maasai Mara is a popular tourist destination. The wildlife areas of the Maasai Mara include the Maasai Mara National Reserve, which is managed by the Narok County Government, and numerous wildlife conservancies, each run by different management companies.

The conservancies are formed through a partnership between Maasai landowners and tourism companies, whereby landowners receive a fixed, monthly payment for leasing their land for wildlife based activities on the condition that they do not live on the land, cultivate or develop it. Combined, the wildlife areas, which are predominantly used for photographic tourism, cover an area of about 2,600 km2 – one-tenth the size of Wales or Belgium.

During the high season about 2,700 people visit the Maasai Mara National Reserve daily. But they are often not adequately managed.

The Mara Reserve – with the exception of a conservancy called the Mara Triangle – doesn’t limit the number of tourists that enter the park per day, and there are no restrictions on the number of tourist vehicles at a predator sighting. It’s therefore not uncommon to see more than 30 tourist vehicles at a sighting.

Ideally, the Mara Reserve should restrict the number of tourists, especially during the peak tourist seasons.

Tourists also affect the landscape of wildlife areas. For example, tourist accommodation is continuing to increase in the Mara Reserve and these facilities are usually built on river banks which are prime habitats for species such as elephants, leopards and breeding raptors.

The research

One crucial element for a healthy cheetah population is cub recruitment, defined as offspring survival to independence.

Cheetahs have relatively big litters, ranging between one to six cubs. But cheetah cubs can succumb to various factors including abandonment, poor health, and fires so the number of cubs that reach independence can be very low, ranging from 5% to 28.9%.

I was interested in finding out if tourism is playing a role in this.

By analysing four years of data on female cheetahs with cubs it became apparent that high numbers of tourists are having a negative effect on the number of cubs that reach independence. More specifically, females in areas with a lot of tourists on average raised one cub (or none survive) per litter to independence compared to more than two cubs in low tourist areas.

There was no hard evidence of direct mortality caused by tourists. But my conclusion from my findings is that tourists are likely to have an indirect effect on cub survival. This could be because they lead to cheetahs changing their behaviour and increase their stress levels by getting too close, overcrowding with too many vehicles, staying at sightings for prolonged periods of time and by making excessive noise.

What can be done?

My study highlights the importance of implementing and enforcing strict wildlife viewing guidelines, especially in areas where tourist numbers are high. The Maasai Mara’s wildlife conservancies are largely getting this right. Tourist numbers are limited to the number of beds per conservancy and only five vehicles are allowed at a sighting at any given time.

Actions that could be taken include:

  • allowing no more than five vehicles at a cheetah sighting;

  • ensuring that no tourist vehicles are allowed near a cheetah lair (den);

  • ensuring that vehicles keep a minimum distance of 30m at a cheetah sighting;

  • ensuring that noise levels and general disturbance at sightings are kept to a minimum;

  • ensuring that vehicles do not separate mothers and cubs; and that

  • cheetahs on a kill are not enclosed by vehicles so that they can’t detect approaching danger.

If tourism is controlled and managed properly, it can play a very positive role in conservation. Money from tourism goes towards the creation and maintenance of protected areas – like the wildlife conservancies – and can help alleviate poverty. It also shows local communities the benefits that predators can bring and can positively influence attitudes.

The ConversationHowever if human pressures, like tourism, remain unchecked it risks having a negative impact on wildlife and could mean the loss of some of the biggest attractions – like cheetahs.

Femke Broekhuis, Senior research associate, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.