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HomeNewsManagement issues led to most Cheetah deaths: Project lead scientist YK Jhala

Management issues led to most Cheetah deaths: Project lead scientist YK Jhala

This week, India lost its ninth cheetah translocated from Africa as part of an ambitious reintroduction project that started in September. YK Jhala was lead scientist of Project Cheetah from 2010 to February 2023. He escorted the cheetahs when they arrived from Namibia and was involved in the project to bring the animals to India since its inception in 2009. He talks to Prerna Katiyar on what could have been done to avoid the casualties and why the project is still poised for success. Edited excerpts:

India has lost six cheetahs relocated from Namibia and South Africa and three cubs. What are the systemic problems, you think, that led to the casualties?

It is heartening to know that none of the cheetahs have died from leopards or poachers — the worst threats anticipated. Most deaths are related to management and monitoring — out of ignorance and have been very expensive learning for the project personnel. On such prestigious, international, high-profile projects, trained and experienced persons should have been appointed to take decisions on the ground — there is no place for learning on the job.

Wildlife biologists have accused the government of keeping them in the dark about the health of the animals. Do you agree?

I am not aware of current communications between the international expert team that was selected and coordinated by me and government officials. As long as I was in service, I was responsible to seek their opinions wherever required.

What flaws do you see in the implementation of the translocation programme?
The project is poised for success; these are teething problems that can be resolved by appointing the right set of experts to lead the project.

Do you feel translocation of African cheetahs to India was a good idea?
Yes, of course! Cheetahs from India and Africa are both the same species. Now that India has addressed all the causes that led to the extinction of the cheetah in India, has sufficient protected areas in the historical range of the cheetah, the economic ability, political will and scientific ability, reintroduction of lost species is the best way to rewild the planet and restore ecosystems.

Do you feel a detailed scientific study was conducted before the translocation, as was suggested by the Supreme Court?
Yes. All the causes for failure pointed out by critics have been proven wrong: Cheetahs will have difficulty in killing deer— (fact is) all African cheetahs successfully hunted a variety of Indian prey (chital, blackbuck, chausingha, nilgai, sambar, hare and monitor lizards); cheetahs will be killed by leopards — there has not been a single death or injury caused by leopards to any of the free-ranging cheetahs; cheetahs will be killed by poachers, village dogs — not happened; cheetahs will come into severe conflict with locals by killing livestock — cheetahs were observed to kill mostly wild prey even when outside of the national park and only one calf was killed that was promptly compensated. There has been no conflict with communities.You were at the forefront of the project for almost a decade and even accompanied the first batch of cheetahs from Namibia. But you were not made part of the government’s Cheetah Task Force. Why do you feel the government did that?
Only senior government officials can answer that question. I believe I did everything by the book that was required for a successful translocation and the establishment of cheetahs in India as can be seen in the action plan.

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