Kuno cheetah deaths: Could radio collars be killing the big cats in India?
Could radio collars, the crucial electronic devices that help track the movement of protected animals, be harmful for them?
That is the question many are asking after the deaths last week of two cheetahs which were among the 20 big cats brought to India with much fanfare last year. Cheetahs, declared extinct in 1952 in India, were reintroduced as part of the world’s first intercontinental relocation of a large carnivore. They are housed in Kuno national park in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.
So far, eight cheetahs, including three cubs born in March, have died.
Some of the deaths have been caused by unavoidable reasons, such as cardiac failure precipitated by stress or mating injuries.
But several wildlife experts and veterinary doctors have told the BBC that the last two deaths were caused by maggot infestations following skin infections. And they say one of the reasons could be the radio collars that the animals are made to wear for their own protection.
It’s a theory the environment and forests ministry has strongly rejected. In an official statement, the ministry insisted that the adult cheetahs all died “due to natural causes” and said reports blaming radio collars were “speculative and lacking in scientific evidence”. The BBC also contacted Rajesh Gopal, chairman of the cheetah project, but he hasn’t responded yet.
Wildlife experts, however, say such injuries are not uncommon among other big cats too, especially during India’s humid rainy season.
Alok Kumar, former chief conservator of forests in Madhya Pradesh, told the BBC that the deaths among big cats could be due to many reasons but radio collars – although key to their survival – could be a factor too.
“These collars carry chips that send information about the wearer through satellites and are necessary to monitor the movement of the animal for their safety and protection,” Mr Kumar said, adding that he “has seen infections caused by collars even in tigers”.
Yadvendradev Jhala, veteran conservationist and one of the experts who planned and oversaw the translocation project, told the BBC that the wounds may be caused by the animal scratching the area around the collar because of humidity.
“This is the first monsoon for the cheetahs who have come from the jungles of Africa which are dry zones and they are still trying to acclimatise to Indian monsoon,” he said.
The cheetahs “have a very heavy under-fur” – thick hair under their neck – which absorbs a lot of moisture in very damp weather and that makes it soft and tender and itchy.
“And when the animal scratches, if the skin breaks, then flies lay eggs there and a maggot infestation happens which leads to a bacterial invasion and causes septicaemia, leading to death,” he added.
A lot of prestige is attached to the cheetah project in India – Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself travelled to Kuno last September to release the first batch of eight cheetahs from Namibia into the national park. (Another 12 of the big cats were brought in from South Africa earlier this year.) So it’s no surprise that every death – and birth – makes headlines.
The death of the cubs from “malnourishment and dehydration” had led many to ask why the authorities didn’t intervene in time to ensure their survival. Similar questions are being asked now after last week’s deaths.
One vet who has seen a video of one of the two bodies said on condition of anonymity that “it was covered with thousands of maggots from head to toe”.
“It takes several days for an animal to die from a maggot infestation, so how come no-one noticed?” he asked.
The last cheetah to die was Suraj, spotted last Friday by a monitoring team “in a lethargic state” with “a fly around its neck”, the Indian Express reported. Three hours later, Suraj was found dead.
A wildlife official said “initial investigation found the cause of the feline’s death to be wounds on the neck and back”.
The paper quoted Madhya Pradesh principal chief conservator of forests JS Chauhan – who has since been removed from his position – as saying that another male cheetah, who had died a few days earlier, had similar injuries. Mr Chauhan said that “one of the causes could be the satellite collars”.
On Wednesday, reports said at least three other cheetahs were sick with similar wounds, with wildlife experts calling on the authorities to investigate the role of radio collars in the deaths.
Mr Jhala says the only way to deal with the situation is to check all the remaining cheetahs to see if any of them have any lesions.
“And if they find any, then they have to treat them. The collars, of course, can’t be put back on until an animal has fully healed, which means that the cheetahs will have to be brought back into protected enclosures for their safety,” he adds.
The action plan for the reintroduction of the cheetah in India had anticipated a 50% mortality rate in the first year of the project.
Mr Jhala says it was anticipated that the deaths would be from snaring and poaching, accidents involving vehicles and in conflict with leopards.
“It’s very positive that the anticipated causes haven’t happened,” he said. “On the other hand, the deaths that have taken place have been a learning experience, a very expensive learning experience.”
Mr Kumar says that projects like these are expected to have a long gestation period.
“Cheetah is a new species in our home. It may take five to 10 years to settle them in the Indian subcontinent,” he said. “We are taking lessons every day, learning how to manage and protect them.”