The Union environment ministry on Friday announced the formation of an expert panel to monitor and advise the cheetah introduction project amid concerns among some wildlife scientists that the government has prioritised the project’s public perceptions over its real needs.
The 11-member Cheetah Project Steering Committee, constituted by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), will review and guide the project, suggest regulations to open the cheetah habitats to eco-tourism, and recommend steps to involve local communities in the project, the ministry said.
The NTCA — a ministry agency implementing the project — said the steering committee would hold atleast one meeting every month and organise field visits whenever required. The committee’s chair is Rajesh Gopal,a former Indian Forest Service officer who has been associated with tiger conservation efforts for more than 35 years.
Sections of wildlife scientists, some of whom are not associated with the project, said that while the project requires sustained science-based guidance, the steering committee announcement, for now, appears, as one scientist put it, to be a “distraction” to “manage public perceptions”.
“This looks like a distraction, something else to focus on other than the unfortunate deaths, the prolonged captivity of some of the cheetahs, and the uncertainty about Kuno’s cheetah-carrying capacity,” said a top conservation scientist familiar with big cat ecology.
Conservation scientists, including cheetah specialists from South Africa guiding the project, have said the deaths — three adults among 20 brought in from Namibia and South Africa, and three cubs among four born in Kuno in March this year — should not be viewed as a setback to the project.
The three cubs had died on Tuesday, but project authorities announced only one death on Tuesday and two deaths on Thursday. A scientist asked on Friday: “Why that delay? Is there an effort to make a project launched amid much fanfare needlessly look better than it is?”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the first set of cheetahs from Namibia into the Kuno National Park on his birthday in September last year. But some wildlife scientists associated with the project say they are disappointed that the Modi government hasn’t yet made available an attractive candidate cheetah site in Mukundara, Rajasthan, for reasons that they say remain unexplained.
Mukundara has a large 70sqkm fenced area that several project scientists view as an ideal site to introduce some cheetahs which would also take pressure off Kuno. But the lack of approval has triggered speculation whether the Centre is holding back because Mukundara is in Rajasthan, a Congress-governed state.
“Modi has personally associated himself with the project — this is rare to have that level of political support,” said a scientist who requested not to be named. “We believed we had full political support, but we did not expect local petty politics to be a problem. This was unforeseen.”
The cheetah action plan released by the environment ministry also mentions other candidate sites — Gandhisagar and Nauradehi sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh.