- Experts attribute the death of three cheetahs, that took place in July and August this year, to infection in wounds on the animals’ skin as their winter fur retained water during the heavy monsoons and caused the occurrence of maggots.
- Incidents of infections and deaths on account of moisture trapped under radio collars, causing irritation and wounds, have previously been recorded in Indian tigers.
- Since the introduction of cheetahs in India, there have been a total of nine deaths, including six adults and three cubs. Experts monitoring the situation say seven of these deaths could have been avoided with better management and greater care.
Since the launch of India’s ambitious cheetah reintroduction programme in 2022, six of the 20 adult cheetahs brought to India from Namibia and South Africa have died over the past year from September 2022 to August 2023.
The recent deaths of three adult cheetahs – Tejas, Suraj and Dhatri – that took place in July and August at the project site in Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh have raised questions about the monitoring and the wellbeing of the cats. There are some experts who are attributing the deaths to different weather patterns between the home and host countries, while others blame the authorities for negligence.
The last three deaths took place in a span of little over a month. Their death is attributed to maggots laying eggs in the wounds under radio collars and septicaemia, a life-threatening bloodstream infection. The National Tiger Conservation Authority, in an official statement, dismissed the diagnosis as “speculation and hearsay”. Media reports later circulated images indicating that the deaths were in most likelihood due to infection in lacerated wounds.
Following the latest death of a cheetah, Dhatri, on August 2, the Cheetah Conservation Fund of Namibia (CCF), posted an official statement on the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter), in which it said, “In collaboration with the Kuno National Park vet team, CCF conducted a post-mortem examination. The cause of death was infection due to maggot infestation (myiasis). This was the same cause of death for two male cheetahs and the reason why we were tracking Dhatri for recapture.”
CCF is a member of Namibia’s Conservancy movement, which is operated by groups of land owners committed to responsibly manage wildlife. Established in 1990, CCF is working with government agencies across the world to conserve cheetahs in the wild. The body helped in the intercontinental translocation of eight cheetahs from Namibia to India.
Dhatri was released in the wild from her boma (enclosure) on June 3. In July, she was untraceable for around four days after her radio collar malfunctioned. During efforts to track and recapture her, the team landed up finding Dhatri dead on August 2
Following Dhatri’s death, four more cheetahs have been found infected with maggots. The radio collars of the cheetahs that are still alive, are removed.
“We have removed collars from the rest of the cheetahs while we develop and test a better collar material for their monitoring devices. Two females are still out; we are working to bring them back for comprehensive health assessments and any necessary treatments,” the CCF added in another post on X (formerly Twitter).
Differences in weather patterns in the Northern and Southern hemispheres
The veterinarians in Kuno (who are from India and Africa) told Mongabay-India that they were caught off guard by the turn of events as they had not witnessed such incidents – where cheetahs were infected by maggots festering in the collars due to humidity – in Namibia or South Africa. The experts also say that the difference in weather patterns in the Northern and Southern hemispheres have some role to play in the poor survival rate of the cheetahs.
The cheetahs introduced to India, which is in the Northern Hemisphere, were from countries in the Southern Hemisphere, where the weather cycle is the opposite. The cats from Namibia and South Africa, the two much drier countries of the Southern Hemisphere, were relocated to Madhya Pradesh in Northern Hemisphere, known for heavy monsoons. Kuno receives an annual precipitation of around 764 mm and the monsoon here lasts for at least two and a half months every year.
“We were not prepared for this,” said Y.V. Jhala, former dean of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the key person of this project, in a conversation with Mongabay-India. Jhala retired from WII earlier this year. “The animals’ biological rhythms and photoperiod play a crucial role in helping them adapt to changes in climate,” he added.
Sharing details of the reasons for the presence of maggots in the wounds, Jhala said that when the cheetahs were translocated, it was winter in the Southern Hemisphere and the animals were in their thick winter coats. They were still in the process of acclimatising themselves. Moreover, the Namibian and South African cheetahs had never experienced heavy rains as in Kuno.
S.N. Sahu, the Duty Officer at the India Meteorological Department’s Bhopal Centre had told the media that Kuno National Park (KNP), received a rainfall of 321.9 mm from June 1 to July 15, far more than the normal 161.3 mm for the given period.
“We had thought that if the animals feel hot, they will prefer to stay in the shade and will gradually moult their winter fur as they adapt to India’s climate. But we did not know that their hair will retain moisture and lead to such a big problem,” added Jhala.
A cheetah expert from South Africa closely involved with the project agrees with Jhala’s observation. “It seems that the thick neck hair on the cheetahs (possibly due the absence of moulting) combined with the high rainfall and humidity keeping the fur wet and finally the high parasite loads (particularly ticks) are all contributing to the problem,” the expert said on condition of anonymity. “Problems like this are rarely seen in Africa where the rainfall is not so concentrated in one short period,” they added.
Lauri Marker, director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia added that while they have seen maggots and flies on cheetahs in Namibia, such cases had not been seen in radio-collared cheetahs there.
Jhala affirmed, adding that though the collars were not the main problem, the cheetahs were unable to lick and clean their wounds as the collars posed an obstruction which then gave rise to bacteria and maggots.
The experts say that the decision to capture the other four cheetahs – who were found suffering from the same problem – and remove the collars was absolutely correct. The temporary removal of the collar and clipping of the fur would allow the skin to dry more easily and speed up healing.
Radio collars and maggot infestation
India has previously seen deaths of radio-collared tigers due to maggots and septicaemia. Tigress T-4, raised in captivity, died in similar conditions with flies around her neck and wounds under her skin in the Panna National Park in September 2014. This was the first of its kind death in India.
Retired Chief Wildlife Warden of Madhya Pradesh, Alok Kumar said, “Infections like this are not new. But timely action has helped us save the animals. We have seen this happening in radio-collared tigers.”
Six months after the death of T-4, another radio-collared tigress was found dead in West Bengal’s Sundarbans in March 2015 because of lacerated wounds under the radio collar. Tigress T-161, in Maharashtra’s Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) died in March 2022 after developing maggot infestation, septicaemia under her radio collar.
However, Jhala said that there is less than one percent chance of death because of the maggots festering under radio collars. “I have collared over 150 animals during my tenure and have seen such infections in an Asiatic lion and in a macaque. When we found out that the animals had wounds, we removed the collars and treated them. They made a quick recovery,” added Jhala.
Ravi Chellam, a wildlife biologist and Coordinator of Biodiversity Collaborative echoed Jhala’s views. “Radio collars are not the underlying reason for the deaths of these animals. We need to study if the African cheetahs are susceptible to certain insects and parasites in India and if the collars provide a micro-environment conducive for these to thrive,” he said.
Negligence and lack of proper management
A scientist with an understanding of the project, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the deaths of the two cheetahs in July was the result of sheer negligence and could have been prevented. The expert added that it was ‘shameful’ that the two cats died despite the presence of four veterinarians and African experts at Kuno.
“They are not letting the scientists do their work and it is the bureaucrats and politicians calling the shots. The lack of access to scientists is the reason behind these two easily preventable deaths. They were unable to identify the signs of the animal in distress and did not question why the two animals were scratching and had flies around their necks,” said the scientist.
The scientist added that the officials were now referring to the deaths anticipated in the Cheetah Action Plan to wash their hands off the situation and defer responsibility. The Cheetah Action Plan has taken into account deaths due to territorial fights, conflict with competing predators, human-animal interaction and natural causes. In fact, it estimates around 50% mortality, but only after the release of the cheetahs and not in captivity under strict monitoring.
Given that the cheetah translocation project is of political significance and the deaths of the cheetahs do not reflect well on the project, multiple people that Mongabay-India spoke to, preferred to remain anonymous.
‘Cheetah deaths could have been prevented’
Speaking to Mongabay-India last month, Chellam said that seven of the eight deaths, including three cubs, that took place until July, could have been prevented. Among these is Sahsa, an adult cheetah that was already in poor health before being imported from Namibia. “The question now arises why the government of India agreed to bring a cheetah which was sick and put it through more stress while transporting and then having to adapt to a new environment?” he asked.
Daksha, another female, died when two male cheetahs attacked her when they were released into her enclosure for mating. “Daksha died when authorities attempted to get the cheetah to mate inside the enclosure. The subsequent death of three of the four cubs born in India, due to heatwave, also raises questions. If they were born in March 2023 that means the mating took place in India, in captivity. Why was there a rush to mate the cheetahs in captivity when it could occur naturally in a free-ranging environment after their release?” Chellam asked.
He added that in the case of another cheetah Uday, cardio-pulmonary failure is mentioned as the cause of death but what caused it (the ultimate cause), has still not been determined. “The cheetahs were under constant monitoring, yet these nine deaths occurred. It’s time to reassess our approach and act decisively,” added Chellam.
The new Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Madhya Pradesh Asim Shrivastava, however, said that it was unfair to judge the team taking care of the animals so harshly as they were working around the clock and there was no question of negligence.
“Even the Supreme Court, in its 2020 order stated that cheetahs would be introduced on an experimental basis. So, when we are well aware that this is an experiment, how can the team be expected to predict everything? In such experiments where several factors like interaction with the environment, which includes bacteria, viruses, and pests, are at play, sometimes unprecedented and unpredictable circumstances arise,” he said.
The way forward
Four other cheetahs that were found to have maggots have reportedly been administered treatment in late July and are now in the quarantine bomas without their radio collars. Collars from the other cats have since then been removed.
“The four cheetahs are responding well to the treatment and will be released back into the bigger boma once they recover completely,” said Shrivastava.
However, one of the vets that Mongabay-India spoke to, who preferred to remain anonymous given the controversial nature of the situation, said that they had no idea about the health of the animals as they had not seen the them since the cheetahs had been administered the treatment, but was hopeful that they would make a complete recovery.
Experts are now wondering whether these cheetahs will be able to adapt to India’s climate and change their biorhythms and photoperiods by the next monsoon.
The Kuno vet suggests that all the cheetahs be treated with a long-acting antiparasitic drug before the monsoons start next year and then carefully monitor them to see if the problems recur.
Jhala, on the other hand, anticipates that one year will be sufficient time for them to acclimatise themselves to India’s climatic conditions. “If the problem recurs and we see more mortalities, we might have to start bringing in cheetahs from the African countries in the Northern Hemisphere, like Somaliland and Ethiopia as they will probably be able to adapt better,” he said.
Chellam, however, disagrees with this strategy and insists on developing a much larger suitable habitat before bringing in more cheetahs. “Without proper and adequate habitats, there’s no point in importing more cheetahs. Creating more glorified safari parks won’t solve the issue. The real strategy lies in learning from our past mistakes and focusing on the establishment of high-quality habitats covering 4,000 to 5,000 square kilometres before bringing the animals. We cannot rely on simply importing more cheetahs from African nations to establish a viable population while neglecting its habitat requirements,” he said.
Shrivastava added that 10 months is too soon to judge the success or failure of the project. “We need to give the project at least three to five years before reaching a conclusion,” he said.
Read more: Questions arise about Project Cheetah
Banner image: A male cheetah introduced in Kuno National Park. Photo from Cheetah Conservation Fund.