Madhya Pradesh's Kuno National Park recently reported the death of six-year-old male cheetah Uday due to an unidentified ailment. This is the second cheetah death reported from Kuno, after five-year-old female Sasha died on March 27 because of a kidney ailment.
This means that out of the 20 adult cheetahs that were flown in from Namibia and South Africa to India in two batches since last year, 18 remain.
On March 29 this year, an adult female cheetah gave birth to four cubs.
It must be noted that even though the recent deaths are unfortunate, the Cheetah Project had set its first year goal at achieving a minimum of 50% survival of the Namibian big cats. So, it seems like the Madhya Pradesh government is already anticipating cheetah deaths. If this 50% estimate is true, then only 10 out of 20 cheetahs might survive their first year.
This leads wildlife observers to the question: Can the remaining 18 cheetahs be housed at Kuno alone?
Even before Uday’s death, the state government was hence looking to rehabilitate some of the cheetahs at Gandhi Sagar Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh and even Rajasthan’s Mukundra Hills Tiger Reserve. It clearly seems like the on-ground staff at Kuno cannot anticipate the health conditions and survival rate of all the cheetahs at once.
Based on studies in the 2000s and 2010s, recent captive cheetah deaths can mostly be blamed on diseases like liver cirrhosis, pneumonia, bronchial diseases, rickets and tuberculosis.
Coming to Namibia, the rare but serious bacterial illness anthrax has proven to be a major fatality for cheetahs in wildlife and forest reserves. Usually spreading between animals and from animals to humans, anthrax’s symptoms can include small blisters on the skin, shortness of breath, abdominal pain and, in many cases, death.
In Namibia’s Etosha National Park, anthrax occurs commonly in nature. The animals that scavenge on the carcasses of animals (mostly the antelopes called springbok) killed by anthrax have eventually built up a certain degree of immunity from anthrax. Etosha’s cheetahs aren’t such animals.
The cats refrain from scavenging on carcasses of dead springbok and rather hunt down and prey on springbok that are weakened by anthrax. This difference in dietary habits has somehow made the cheetahs lack immunities from anthrax.
A 2008 study published in the journal Science pointed to “kidney failure due to AA amyloidosis” as a major cause of cheetah deaths. To put it in layperson terms, AA amyloidosis takes place when amyloid A (one of the many proteins inside an animal’s body) gets corrupted and starts converting normal proteins into abnormal ones. These damaged proteins start building up in tissues in the cheetah’s spleen and liver.
Eventually, many of the cheetahs in African countries like Namibia and South Africa end up dying of kidney failure caused by this protein-related disease. The study concluded that up until 2008, the incidence of AA amyloidosis rose from 20% to 70% of captive cheetahs since the 1980s.
Even though AA amyloidosis isn’t caused by a particular bacteria or virus, the disease is highly contagious whenever a cheetah comes in contact with an AA protein. The study’s researchers concluded that the AA protein is in extremely high amounts in a cheetah’s feces.
Hence, it is advisable for captive-breeding facilities to clean up feces as soon as possible and to separate a cheetah’s feces from food.
While AA amyloidosis cases have been reduced, the cheetahs in South Africa found their survival in danger mostly due to other predators. In a 2018 research paper by four wildlife researchers and conservationists, the known causes of deaths of 293 South African cheetahs were studied.
The results stated that 53.2% of these deaths were caused by predators (mostly lions). Anthropogenic causes (human-made diseases and pollution) came in second, with a share of 26.6% of deaths.
India is fortunate enough to not report any anthrax cases among the wild cats. Unlike Africa, India also doesn’t have a large lion population; with the Asiatic Lion populations limited only to Gujarat's Gir National Park. So, the chances of lions attacking cheetahs are nil.
However, Sasha and Uday’s death stresses the need to keep an eye on the health of these cheetahs. And in order to ensure the survival of the 18 cheetahs and to increase their population further, rehabilitation in batches seems to be the only answer for now.
South Africa’s experience at increasing its cheetah population offers hope.
With a dwindling population of 217 cheetahs in 40 fenced reserves in 2012, the 2018 study mentioned earlier shed light on a cheetah metapopulation project in South Africa. This project basically involved tracking down the major threats and shuffling cheetahs between the 40 reserves to reduce these threats.
For instance, in the reserves where the lions were aplenty, the cheetah population was reduced and transferred to other reserves. The reserves that were low on breeding cheetahs similarly got more of the cats to ensure an inbreeding-free continuity.
With such steps, the population increased from 217 in 2012 to 328 in 2018.
If Madhya Pradesh also aims to transfer some cheetahs from Kuno to Gandhi Sagar and Mukundra, then area-specific threats can be determined along with contingency plans to avoid these threats.