The Supreme Court of India asked the Narendra Modi government to keep political differences aside and shift the translocated cheetahs to the western state of Rajasthan following the deaths of three animals in less than two months.
Over a dozen cheetahs from South Africa and Namibia were translocated to the Kuno National Park (KNP) of Madhya Pradesh in 2022 under the ‘Project Cheetah’, more than 70 years after the animals were declared extinct.
The efforts to reintroduce extinct cheetahs in India have been criticized, but some wildlife activists and experts raised fears of risk to animals from predators and a lack of adequate prey.
A female cheetah from Namibia named Sasha died due to a kidney disease on 27 March.
Uday, a South African cheetah, died in April due to cardio-pulmonary failure. Uday was part of the batch of 12 cheetahs flown to India on 18 February after 8 Namibian cheetahs arrived in September last year.
Another South African female cheetah named Daksha, died on 9 March following a violent interaction with a male during a mating attempt.
India’s top court said the three deaths in a short span of time were a “matter of serious concern”.
Citing reports, a bench of justices BR Gavai and Sanjay Karol told the federal government that the Kuno National Park seems insufficient for such large numbers of cheetahs.
“There is too much concentration of cheetahs in one place,” the bench said, according to news agency PTI.
“Why don’t you look for a suitable place in Rajasthan,” the bench asked the government, adding: “Merely because Rajasthan is ruled by an opposition party does not mean, you will not consider it.”
Rajasthan is ruled by the opposition Indian National Congress, while Madhya Pradesh is under Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Aishwarya Bhati, the additional solicitor general appearing for the federal government, said the task force is seizing the deaths and is investigating all possible aspects.
Ms Bhati added that the autopsies of all the deaths were completed while the task force was continuing the investigation.
The bench questioned how Sasha was cleared to be brought to India when the feline was already suffering from an abuse.
“You are bringing the cheetahs from abroad, it’s a good thing. But they need to be protected. They need to be given suitable habitat, why don’t you explore for a more suitable habitat than Kuno,” the bench said.
Justice Gavai told Ms Bhati: “Don’t bring party-politics into this issue. Consider all the available habitats, whatever is suitable for them. I will be glad if cheetahs are brought to Maharashtra.”
Ms Bhati responded saying that the Mukundra National Park in Rajasthan state is ready and the task force is also considering relocating some cheetahs to other national parks in Madhya Pradesh.
“There are no cheetah experts in India as cheetahs went extinct from the country in 1947-48. Since then our officials have been to South Africa, Namibia and received special training on Cheetah management,” added Ms Bhati.
The bench has directed the top court-constituted expert committee to give its suggestions to the national task force on cheetahs in 15 days to be considered.
Meanwhile, India in March celebrated the birth of four cheetah cubs from one of the females brought from Namibia in September last year. This was the first such cub birth on Indian soil in more than seven decades, as the country’s cheetah population had gone extinct in 1952.