Kochi: The Cheetah Steering Committee met with officials of the Madhya Pradesh forest department on July 5 to discuss the status of Project Cheetah.
The discussions also involved the Uttar Pradesh forest department, which has been roped in to tackle the situations on the ground, including conducting awareness programmes for locals, since the cheetahs could also cross the state boundary and enter into villages in the neighboring state, as per forest officials at Kuno.
Meanwhile, Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary could be the next home for cheetahs in India. The authorities have started preparing for the process as they have begun fencing the park, since this could ensure the success of the introduction programme, as per experts.
However, the fencing work has been brought to a halt due to protests by villagers in the Mandsaur district.
Locals from several nearby villages graze their cattle in Gandhi Sagar and fencing off the reserve could mean a loss of access to their traditional grazing grounds, they told the Times of India.
Discussions on the cheetah movement
The 11-member Cheetah Steering Committee met with forest officials on July 5 in Bhopal, reported the Free Press Journal. The discussions revolved chiefly around the cheetah movement and awareness campaigns for villagers.
With ten African cheetahs released into the wild in Kuno, some of them are also moving out of the park boundaries and entering into villages. This has raised concerns regarding the animals’ safety, since these human-dominated habitats have a number of risks to the cheetahs such as electric wires and open wells, divisional forest officer P.K. Verma told The Wire on July 7.
Two cheetahs, Pawan and Aasha, moved to the villages bordering UP as they explored the region in the last few months. Hence, officials felt the need to involve the UP forest department in the programme.
Madhya Pradesh forest officials will work with their counterparts in UP to increase the area and coverage of awareness programmes for villagers in these regions so that they would know what to do if they saw cheetahs in their lands, said Verma.
Per news reports, the Cheetah Steering Committee also visited Kuno on July 5 to take stock of Project Cheetah. The programme will turn a year old in just around two months.
Another home for the cheetahs
The African cheetahs in India could have another home in Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary, which is also in Madhya Pradesh. The Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary–Bhainsrorgarh Wildlife Sanctuary complex, with an area of around 2,500 sq km, is one of the four other recommended sites for the introduction of the African cheetah in India, based on surveys conducted in 2010 and recent assessments, as per the Cheetah Action Plan.
The others are Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary, the largest wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh; Shahgarh bulge in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan; and fenced enclosures in Mukundara Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan.
On July 5, Chief Wildlife Warden J.S. Chauhan told Down to Earth that officials are planning to shift some African cheetahs from Kuno National Park to Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary, which is located on the northern border of Mandsaur and Neemuch districts in Madhya Pradesh.
He told the news outlet that the relocation of new cheetahs would be undertaken “in strict accordance with the Cheetah Action Plan”, and that the plan involves “identifying newer habitats for cheetahs”. While the number of cheetahs to be moved has not yet been decided, some of them would be shifted by the year-end, Chauhan told Down to Earth on July 5.
And preparations for the cheetahs are already underway. According to reports, it could be ready for cheetahs by November.
According to some reports, Rs 20 crore will be spent on fencing off an area of 80 sq km, and for “developing grassland” at the 368 sq km-Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary.
Fences: A concern for locals
Fences, some experts have argued, could be crucial for the success of Project Cheetah.
India should fence two to three habitats for cheetahs as there has never been a successful reintroduction into an unfenced reserve in recorded history, South African cheetah expert Vincent van der Merwe had told PTI in May this year.
Fencing can help create “source reserves”, habitats that provide ideal conditions to increase the population of a particular species, he said.
However, Rajesh Gopal, chairman of the 11-member Cheetah Steering Committee told the Indian Express on June 1 that the fencing habitats were “absolutely bogus” and that “India does not want fenced habitats for cheetahs like the ones in South Africa and Namibia as it is against the basic tenets of wildlife conservation”.
As earlier mentioned, locals are definitely not happy with the fences.
According to TOI, Locals from four villages– Bassi, Booj, Rawali, Kudi and Janapani – graze their cattle in Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary. Fencing off the reserve could mean loss of access to their traditional grazing grounds. Villagers have warned of “major agitations” if the fencing work resumes, the report said.
Project Cheetah, India’s ambitious cheetah reintroduction programme, kicked off in September last year when the first batch of eight African cheetahs arrived from Namibia to Kuno.
This article was first published by TheWire
Image: A cheetah from South Africa that was translocated to Kuno National Park. Photo: Twitter/@byadavbjp