Wildlife rangers at Kuno National Park in central India spent 10 days this month tracking Namibian cheetah Dhatri. When they finally catch up to her in the forest, they make a terrifying discovery. She was dead, covered in maggots that had protruded from a wound on her neck around her radio collar.
Datri was one of 20 cheetahs shipped to India from southern Africa last year and released into the park himself by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of a grand experiment: more than 70 years after India declared the species extinct , reintroduced the species into the country, where it was hunted into oblivion under British colonial rule.
For backers, Project Cheetah is a landmark conservation effort that, if successful, could provide a global blueprint for restoring animal populations and ecosystems. Modi has touted the project as a source of prestige that mirrors his government’s stated ambition to restore India to its pre-colonial glory.
But the situation has taken a shocking turn. Nine cats – including three cubs born in India – died from causes including malnutrition and collar infections, which critics blamed on inexperience, poor management and the government’s neglect of experts.
Now, even longtime advocates are warning that Project Cheetah, decades in the making, is in jeopardy. Jairam Ramesh, a former environment minister in the opposition Congress party who promoted the initiative while in office, last month blamed the animals’ deaths on the government’s prioritization of “vanity and showmanship” over science.
“This is the first transcontinental transfer of a carnivore,” said Yadvendradev Jhala, former director of the Indian Wildlife Research Institute, who helped lead the project but was ousted this year. “The whole world is watching this . . . we cannot afford to fail.”
Authorities estimate that half of the original 20 cheetahs will die within a year of being released into the wild from hazards such as poaching and leopard attacks, which have been documented in Africa.
But experts say at least some of the deaths happened earlier and could have been prevented had authorities acted sooner. Scientists believe heavy monsoon rains soaked the fur of Datri and two other cheetahs, causing fatal ulcers around their collars.
A group of South African scientists involved in the project claimed in a letter to India’s Supreme Court last month that they had been “ignored” and “had to beg for information”, according to Indian media reports.
“Such a number of deaths is certainly a concern for the entire country and for all those involved in conservation,” said MK Ranjitsinh, a prominent naturalist appointed by the Supreme Court to oversee the project. Ranjitsinh said the government had not consulted on the deaths. him or other experts. “Cheetah management should be based on expert expertise, not on bureaucratic hierarchies.”
Laurie Markle, the Namibia-based head of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which helped bring some of the cats to India, also wrote to the Supreme Court demanding more transparency from the authorities.
Modi’s government dismissed the criticisms. “Every cheetah is our responsibility and we share our views with experts in Namibia and South Africa,” Environment Minister Bupender Yadav told reporters this month. “We take this project very seriously.”
Aseem Shrivastava, a forest officer in Madhya Pradesh who is overseeing the project, added that the cheetahs died of “natural causes”.
The surviving cats have been moved to larger pens for closer monitoring and will be re-released with the approval of a government-appointed expert committee, he said.
The reintroduction plan has been dividing conservationists, with supporters saying it would mobilize investment in habitat restoration and critics arguing authorities should prioritize India’s existing wildlife.
Naturalist Valmik Thapar goes a step further, arguing that recent centuries of historical records show that cheetahs were not native cheetahs, but exotic pets kept by royal families for hunting.
“Some parts of India still have lovely, abundant wildlife that needs funding to save,” he said. “Why would anyone want to reintroduce or introduce . . . spending millions of dollars to bring cheetahs into such unfriendly terrain?”
Many communities around Cuno hope the new attention will bring much-needed development.
Cheetah posters plastered the village near the national park in Prakash Jatav, who sold two acres of land last year for about three times what he had paid for it. A hotel is being built across the street. “If all goes well with the cheetahs, the prospects for this place will be even greater,” he said.
But he added that the project’s rough start had scared off more investors. Kuno missed its target date of opening to visitors in February. “People are now intimidated about buying land here,” he said. “The shelter project has to succeed. If it fails, we’re screwed.”
For others, the move has been a harrowing experience. In preparation, the authorities relocated dozens of villages, mostly populated by marginalized tribal populations, from within the forest.
Bagcha was the last village to be relocated earlier this year, and residents now live on an open plain near the park. They were given land and cash compensation, but said the new site was less suitable for planting.
“We have a very good life there. We can get a lot out of the forest,” Jamuna said. “The land is full of rocks. Our agriculture is gone.”
Other reintroduction efforts have had some success, such as lynx in Europe and wild horses in China. Authorities in Cambodia and Kazakhstan are currently exploring the reintroduction of tigers.
For the cheetah project to succeed, experts estimate that New Delhi will need to import several batches of animals to establish a viable population.
Namibia expert Mark admits that such schemes are akin to “playing God”. But because cats are threatened in many habitats, “one of the solutions is to try to re-establish the ranges where cheetahs once existed,” she said.
“More reintroductions of many species will be required. There will be wins in some areas and losses in others,” she added. “Right now, we’re losing a lot of the cheetah habitat.”