The Project Cheetah authorities have reached an in-principle decision to shift surplus cheetahs from Kuno national park to Gandhi Sagar wildlife sanctuary after the monsoon. At present, Kuno has 26 cheetahs, including 13 cubs and sub-adults.

This follows a reassessment of Kuno’s cheetah carrying capacity — pegged at 21 in the Project Action Plan — necessitated by a staggering loss of over 25 percent since 2022 of Kuno’s prime cheetah prey base: the chital population.

The loss of an estimated 2,250 chital within a year has confounded the project team as the seven cheetahs that managed to hunt in the wild outside the enclosures during that period took down only around 50 chital.

Since authorities have ruled out large-scale poaching of chital for bushmeat due to the presence of too many boots and cameras on the ground, in the dock is Kuno’s 90-strong leopard population.

Ironically, leopards are also frustrating the efforts to stock and breed a cheetah prey base in Gandhi Sagar wildlife sanctuary by sneaking into a 60 sq km enclosure to feed on chital brought from the state’s prey-rich forests.

Festive offer

While Madhya Pradesh is in the process of bringing 1,500 chitals to replenish the dwindling stock at Kuno and looking to dispatch another lot to Gandhi Sagar, the project authorities have acknowledged the limitations of draining other habitats of prey without a strategy to reduce leopard predation.

The Cheetah Project Steering Committee is hence considering a proposal for introducing a larger cat in the Kuno mix to reduce leopard activities and ease the pressure on the prey base.

“A few larger cats can dominate the space now densely packed with leopards in Kuno and eventually impact their predation and breeding. If lions are not an option, a few tigers will have the same effect,” said a project scientist, adding that Cheetah Project Steering Committee chairperson Rajesh Gopal proposed the remedy at a recent meeting.

When contacted, Rajesh Gopal said that bringing tigers would be a biological approach aimed at fostering ecological niches. “Kuno has one of India’s highest density of leopards and they cannot be tossed around. Cheetahs and leopards co-exist with lions in Africa. In a landscape frequented by tigers, they are the natural choice in Kuno,” he explained.

Over the last 15 years, four male tigers reached Kuno from Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore tiger reserve. One of those tigers is believed to be still present in the larger Kuno landscape. The plan is to translocate a couple of females and expect males to show up on their own to establish a founder population in Kuno.

Wildlife Institute of India’s Qamar Qureshi, who leads the project’s team of scientists, agreed that the presence of a larger cat would have an impact on leopards. “It’s an idea which should work in theory. But one has to consider several other issues such as the potential for man-animal conflict due to dispersal etc,” he said.

Larger cats, though, are not an option for Gandhi Sagar yet where the challenge at hand is to take leopards out of the prey enclosure. “Though easier said than done, we will divide the area and try to secure one compartment at a time like we did in Kuno in 2022,” said a senior forest official.

A retired forest officer who served in Kuno, however, refused to buy the “leopard theory” behind the fall in chital numbers: “Look at the scale of the (chital) population slide. Are Kuno’s leopards selectively preying on chitals? Or are we downplaying the impact of bushmeat poaching?”

A few state forest officials also questioned the consistency of the estimation drives. Over the last two decades, project scientists reported per-sq-km chital density of 5 (2006), 36 (2011), 52 (2012) and 69 (2013) in Kuno. In 2021, they used two methods — camera trapping and distance sampling — to come up with two densities — 38 and 23 per sq km — of chitals.

Going by the lower density of 23 per sq km, the Cheetah Task Force estimated more than 8,000 chitals in Kuno wildlife sanctuary (345 sq km) in 2021. The state has released at least 750 chitals in Kuno since.

Within a year of introducing the first batch of cheetahs in September 2022, the number of chitals fell to an estimated 6,500 in Kuno. The downward trend, it is learned, has not reversed since.

Qureshi, however, declined to offer a timeline for shifting surplus cheetahs to Gandhi Sagar or getting the next lot from Africa. “Gandhi Sagar will get cheetahs once the leopards are removed from the enclosure and the prey augmentation is complete,” he said.

While the Cheetah project flew in 20 adult animals from Namibia (8) and South Africa (12) in 2022-23, a total of 17 cubs have been born in Kuno. So far, the project has lost 11 cheetahs, including four cubs. Barring one, all the surviving animals are now inside enclosures where they will spend the monsoon months.