‘It Is Unlikely We Will See Any More Cheetah Mortalities’: Cheetah Expert Adrian Tordiffe
Project Cheetah, which will complete one year in September 2023, has been marked with news of runaways, deaths, confusion, opinions and counter-opinions from the government and experts. IndiaSpend spoke to South African cheetah expert Adrian Tordiffe on the concerns so far and the way forward.
Mumbai: After three adult cheetahs of the 20 translocated to India, and three of the four cubs born in India, died in a span of three months in 2023, the Indian government formed a steering committee to guide the project. Since the deaths, the project has met with concerns and criticism but one international expert is optimistic.
“I’m positive about the survival chances of the cheetahs in an open environment like Kuno,” Adrian Tordiffe, veterinary wildlife specialist and the director of the University of Pretoria’s Onderstepoort Veterinary Academic Hospital in South Africa, who has been advising the Indian government on the cheetah project and is on the consulting panel for the steering committee, told IndiaSpend in an interview.
The government has said it will release seven more cheetahs into the national park before the monsoon. Though Tordiffe believes that Kuno’s exact carrying capacity for the cheetahs is not known (the Cheetah Action Plan estimates 21, while Madhya Pradesh authorities have demanded some cheetahs be moved to other parks, as we reported here), it can accommodate many cheetahs. But Tordiffe worries of the steady decline in the number of prey in the park, possibly due to hunting.
“You are overloading the actual monitoring teams, and creating a potential for chaos,” said Tordiffe, on the planned release of seven more cheetahs in the wild. “I think a staggered release of animals is really the way that it needs to be done. I'm a little concerned at this stage that they are still planning to put another seven cheetahs out before the monsoons.”
Tordiffe’s research focus is non-communicable diseases of both captive and free-ranging wild felids and primates. He also has a keen interest in wildlife anaesthesia and physiology and has been called upon to assist with the anaesthesia of a wide range of mammals.
Tordiffe spoke to IndiaSpend about cheetah deaths, how many cheetahs Kuno National Park can accommodate, whether things could have been done differently in hindsight and whether the project can be judged for success.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Three adult cheetahs and three cubs have died in the last three to four months in India. The cheetah translocation project has received criticism from many quarters. In hindsight, should some things have been done differently?
If we go back to the death of the first one [female cheetah named Sasha], it was due to a chronic condition the animal already had [Sasha died of chronic renal failure in March 2023]. It would have been great if some checks and balances had been in place [on part of the Namibian experts] before the animals were moved. The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Namibia and India took place faster than most people expected and then the pressure was placed by the Namibian government on Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) to basically make the cheetahs available. So, I don't want to be too critical of them but that [situation] perhaps could have been avoided if those checks and balances had all been in place before the animals moved.
Sasha’s test results did show that she already had the condition when she was in Namibia. The actual test result that I saw was from at least a month before she left Namibia. Sometimes what happens is, if you get the lab result via email, somebody either misses or, they don't actually take the time to look at it, or they've got four or five other things to do, and they file the result, but don't actually critically evaluate it. Had they done that, I think they would have seen straight away that she had a problem. The problem didn't clinically manifest because at that stage, she still had enough kidney reserve to function relatively normally. She was eating, drinking, behaving normally; she hadn’t lost weight, there was no other sign that she was actually clinically ill. It's a progressive disease, there's virtually nothing you can do to stop it from getting worse. And so, she only clinically developed symptoms when she was already in India. There is nothing that they could have done that would have changed the outcome. It was all just a matter of time before she died. So, I think they [the Indian side] put on a brave face and made her comfortable until the end.
She should have been rejected as a candidate for translocation and treated and made comfortable until she died in Namibia. The translocation played no role in her death in the end at all; she would have died anyway had she stayed there.
Do we conclusively know the cause of death of the second cheetah named Uday? He died of cardio-pulmonary failure in April but what caused it?
Cheetahs are actually quite distinct individuals in terms of their behaviour and personalities. He [Uday] certainly didn't respond quite the same as compared to any of the others; he already appeared a lot more stressed than them [Uday and 11 other cheetahs were brought to India from South Africa in February 2023].
When I was first shown the videos of him stumbling around with his neck down, the first thing that came to my mind was that there's a problem with the potassium levels in his blood. Now, I've seen quite a few cases like that in South Africa. This hasn't been published in any research paper or scientific review but from my own personal experience, the two factors [that could be the cause of Uday’s death] are an intensive amount of stress for a short period of time and when the animal also at the same time doesn't eat for a few days. Now normally, for a cat, that wouldn't be a problem and it's not going to be a life threatening situation. However, if you combine that with a fairly intense stress [of translocation from South Africa to India], plus low potassium levels, then that can be a combination of things.
When they examined him, they did check his potassium level. It was 3.3, certainly the lower end of the normal which is 3.5 but it's not low enough to sort of suddenly say he has a definite problem. But I've certainly seen cases in domestic cats where at that level, they did respond to supplementation with potassium chloride. The final post mortem report said he died of cardio-respiratory failure but we still don’t know what caused that.
Whilst all of those cheetahs went through the same experience, only this one actually experienced the problem [of stress]. And, whilst you do everything to try and minimise the stress, moving the animal from one place to another involves some inevitable stress. There are individual variabilities in susceptibility to stress; certain individuals handle stress relatively well, others don't.
In May, the female cheetah named ‘Daksha’ died due to violent interactions with male cats during a courtship or mating attempt. South African cheetah expert Vincent van der Merwe had accepted that Daksha’s death due to mating injuries was unexpected, even though the Indian government had said there was no way anyone could intervene. Your comment?
We were concerned about animals being in enclosures for long periods of time, and about them being separated. We have said on multiple occasions that the females need to be bred quite early on whilst they're still relatively young, because that maximises the actual breeding potential over the entire lifetime. [In enclosures], you don't just put males with females; there's a very specific way in which it is done and by ensuring that the females are very receptive to the males before you open the gate. But I don't think somebody could have predicted this with those males. We see that kind of thing happening randomly in South Africa as well; about 8% of all the mortalities in cheetahs are related to intra-specific competition. With hindsight, we could have maybe only allowed them contact once they've been released out into the wild.
Were the three cheetah cubs, who died in May, weak, dehydrated, and had not been eating enough? If the mother was unable to provide for the cubs, could the management not have intervened?
I think the challenge with the cubs really comes with this kind of need to balance intensive monitoring, where you're able to pick up a problem fairly early on, with not wanting to stress the female out [by close monitoring], and maybe, a little bit of inexperience in working with the animals. I think certainly the team at Kuno were advised to be very careful about not putting too much pressure on the female [by close and constant monitoring]. If you’ve been there [Kuno], the grass is incredibly long and it's actually quite difficult to see the cubs very clearly unless they're moving, or unless you actually go and look in between the grass and get quite close to them.
Perhaps if I was there, I would have actually tried to get a lot closer and wouldn't be as worried that getting close would cause her any real distress. But you can imagine these people that are monitoring now for the first time; they don't know the animals’ background. They need to actually see these cubs on a day-to-day basis; that may be an important lesson to be learned, going forward. Because in that environment where you don't have competing predators, the actual survival rate of cubs should be relatively high. But clearly something went wrong. I mean, obviously, the high temperatures are an issue but normally cubs in Namibia would survive with those temperatures, no problem at all.
The Indian government has repeatedly said that cubs have a survival rate of around 10%. But that's for the wild, isn’t it? In a controlled environment, shouldn’t more have survived?
Well, no, not just wild, [for the 10% rate] we are talking about wild cheetahs in a competitive environment where you've got lions, hyenas, leopards, because by far the greatest mortality is caused by other large predators. If we don't have those extra competing predators, then the mortality rate goes down dramatically. So, in many of our fenced reserves in South Africa, where we have low densities of lions, or no hyenas, no wild dogs, survival rates are very high.
So my view is that either she [mother cheetah Jwala] wasn't producing milk, and that may be a physiological problem with her as a first time mother, something hormonally went wrong. She wasn't in poor condition herself, she wasn't starving but something went wrong there. And we won't really know, I think, at this stage, but the cubs were definitely starving, they were not getting nutrition. It's a combination of both those things--actual dehydration and hyperthermia. Had they had enough milk, if they had been in good body condition and growing properly, I think they could have easily managed with those temperatures; it would not have been a significant problem to them.
Did India not have trained veterinarians and specialists to monitor the cubs and assess how they are doing, whether they are gaining weight?
Look, you have to just keep things in a little bit of perspective. A doctor treating humans can talk to them. Even though a vet cannot talk to their patients, they can examine them on the table. As soon as you move into the wildlife sphere, you're dealing with at least maybe 100 species. The only way that you can really assist them is either by looking at them from a distance, and that requires quite a lot of actual experience. I just sometimes watch an animal walk and say, that's not normal, but that means you have to have seen 100 normal animals before. Or you could anaesthetise them and then examine them but anaesthesia is not risk-free.
So to explain the challenges, the best analogy that I can give is to have a paediatrician stand at the front door of a hospital and look at somebody walking up to them with a baby in a pram and recognise what's wrong with that baby 100 metres away. That's the equivalent of the sort of environment veterinarians normally have to work in. We have to have a little bit of respect for the kind of conditions that they have to work under. Whilst people are gaining that sort of experience… I'm sure that in the future, they will learn from this entire process and so we need to just have a bit of a longer vision in terms of success or failure.
The Indian government has said that they will be releasing seven more cheetahs in the wild in Kuno before the monsoon, and that there is no decision right now to move them to other locations. When this project was being conceptualised, was the discussion only about Kuno or were you told that there will be multiple locations and a larger area?
When we first visited India, we were shown quite a few reserves. It wasn't only Kuno; we went to Mukundara hills, we went to Gandhi Sagar. And the impression that we got was that Kuno would be the start, but from there, we would move animals out. I even saw the letter that was written to the central government by Rajasthan, confirming that they would make Mukundara available for cheetahs.
Whilst many people are predicting how many cheetahs can actually be accommodated in Kuno, I think Kuno can actually accommodate quite a lot of cheetahs. Part of the problem has been that there's been a steady decline in the number of prey there. Now, in an open system [open forest] like that, the prey base declining can only really be due to two factors. One is that there isn't enough grazing available for the [prey] animals, and that's not evident in Kuno, or that there's actually some sort of hunting that's taking place. Hunting might have declined dramatically since there's a lot of presence in the park but we have heard gunshots in the park.
In an open system, you have to push out enough animals into one area to be able to ensure that the density is there, that there's interaction [between the animals], that they establish some communication networks, and that breeding can start taking place.
We don't know at this stage exactly how many cheetahs Kuno can accommodate. My feeling, however, is that just because of the intensive monitoring that has to be done, it's not feasible to just release all the cheetahs into Kuno in one go in a short space of time. You are overloading the actual monitoring teams, and creating a potential for chaos. So, I think a staggered release of animals is really the way that it needs to be done. I'm a little concerned at this stage that they are still planning to put another seven cheetahs out before the monsoons. That's a very short space of time. You've got the resources, that's great, but the point is that most of these monitoring teams have to be trained; they haven't done this kind of work before.
Obviously, once cheetahs have been out for a long enough period of time, and they've established their territories, then you can scale back on the monitoring tremendously. But that will only happen once the actual territories have been established and animals kind of settle down. We're not really anywhere near that happening at this stage.
But critics have pointed out the prolonged quarantine period of the cheetahs when they were supposed to be released from their enclosures within two to three months?
Although they were in quarantine camps originally, they are no longer in the quarantine camps but in acclimatisation camps which are up to 200 hectares in size. They are big enough to accommodate these animals and made to maintain fitness as they will still be hunting by themselves in that area. They are protected from other predators. I think it is feasible to keep those cheetahs inside those camps until after the monsoon, or until there are other release sites. That will just give us a bit of time to stagger [it] and observe their pattern. They are starting to just find their feet and establish some sort of territory. Now putting out three or four other cheetahs will, you know, create a bit of more chaos.
Vincent van der Merwe has said that he expects more deaths in the coming year as cheetahs establish home ranges, as they come in contact with the predators that we spoke about. Can that be mitigated?
We specifically have chosen animals from South Africa that are very predator-aware. They have already encountered predators at some stage like lions, hyenas, wild dogs, leopards. We've seen virtually nothing happen in the last three months [in this context], it's not impossible but it'd be highly unusual to suddenly now have three deaths due to leopards within the next month or two, that would just be very strange. I don't think that there's anything we really can do to mitigate against that. If they were started to be killed by leopards, then perhaps Kuno is not the best site to release them; you know, then we might have to try at an alternative site.
I'm very positive about the survival chances of the cheetahs in an open environment like Kuno. Having seen what we've seen over the last few months, the fact that we haven't had any mortalities or any injuries, even from interactions between leopards and cheetahs… Most of the science I'm looking at from where I'm sitting, it looks like the cheetahs are going to do pretty well.
Fenced or unfenced reserves, what is best for the cheetahs especially as van der Merwe has suggested fenced reserves, while the chairman of the steering committee Rajesh Gopal has rejected the idea?
Even though we (Vincent and I) are listed on the steering committee, we are not part of the meetings and haven’t been consulted yet. In terms of fenced or unfenced, I have a slightly different view to Vincent’s. Vincent is a very big proponent of fencing. Again, he's got a tremendous experience in Africa with more than 70 cheetah reintroductions. India is a different environment, an open system in India is not the same thing as an open system in Africa. And I am therefore a lot more confident that we can see success without fences.
The big issue for me about fencing in India is that fencing needs to keep cattle out of reserves. When I went to visit Gandhi Sagar, it was at the end of the dry season, but there was not a blade of grass left in that reserve. It was quite clear there was a lot of cattle that were coming into the reserve. The big thing would be to keep cattle out so that you can then introduce the prey base to that area and that you don't have competition for grass between cattle and them because there were very few prey species in Gandhi Sagar at that stage to maintain a good cheetah population. But all you need to do there is move the cattle out, ensure that they remain outside the reserve.
So what would you say to the management of Kuno, especially because the Madhya Pradesh officials have said that some cheetahs need to be moved out of there due to logistical and manpower issues?
Again, people become fixated on numbers. How much area is needed for a cheetah varies tremendously. It all depends on the prey base. That is the primary driver of cheetah densities. And using East Africa or Namibia as a kind of template, or to give you an idea of the home ranges of cheetahs, is just ridiculous. Those are two areas in which cheetahs occur at relatively low density because the prey base is relatively low in both areas in East Africa. In Botswana, where we see five cheetahs per 100 square kilometres--that's five times higher than in East Africa. There is a fenced reserve in southern Africa where we have cheetah densities that are up to 10 cheetahs per 100 square kilometres.
Does the Kuno management have practical constraints in handling the cheetahs?
More cheetahs will be coming from South Africa very soon. So it's this conundrum, we look like we have 18 cheetahs sitting in Kuno but once Gandhi Sagar is ready, you’re going to need more cheetahs to put into those reserves. Nauradehi needs to be developed now, we can’t wait for them to be made ready for cheetahs… we need to check the prey base and manpower. We don’t need to suddenly put up fences but make sure everything else is there. Another five-six animals will come by the end of this year and then there is a big batch coming in from South Africa in November next year. But again, no point bringing them across when there is no accommodation for them
[For the cheetahs already here] it is unlikely we will see any more mortalities; the tricky part is over. Three deaths out of 20 is not a big number when it comes to cheetahs.
Kuno management needs more vehicles, and they can think about decreasing the size of monitoring teams as some released cheetahs are starting to settle down. They don’t need intensive monitoring--maybe once a day; maybe reallocate some of those for the newly released cheetahs. But there is the landscape of fear: What if something happens and we are accused of not monitoring enough? Again, there are some difficult decisions that have to be made that are practical and risks that have to be assessed. It's never a 100% guarantee that everything you do is going to guarantee survival; this is a wild system, animals die all the time.
All the releases that have failed in open systems before died because there was zero post-release monitoring, animals were dumped and left to fend for themselves… It’s the post-release monitoring that’s important.
So you are saying Kuno’s carrying capacity need not be written off?
There’s actually a risk of putting too few cheetahs in Kuno and you end up with them being separated, then there is no actual interaction between animals, you don’t get the proper breeding… A staggered approach where you gather information as animals are released, and then make decisions based on information you have is necessary. There is a possibility if you don’t release enough animals, they may not breed because a certain female may not encounter a male.
Correction and Amplification:
1. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that 'domestic cats did not respond to supplementation with potassium,' when they did respond to the supplementation.
2. The article also mistakenly referred to intra-specific competition as interest-specific competition. The correct statement is that about 8% of all the mortalities in cheetahs are related to intra-specific competition.
We regret the errors.
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