For centuries, leopards roamed the vast expanses of India and roamed among lions, tigers and leopards. It was declared extinct in 1952 after decades of hunting by British princes and colonists, shrinking habitat and vanishing prey.
Last year, the Indian government sought to Bring back the cheetahs By reintroducing the species into the country, bringing in 20 species from South Africa and Namibia.
Those efforts suffered another setback this month after the death of the third leopard in 45 days in Kono National Park, a wildlife sanctuary in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. In the latter case, a female cheetah was killed during a violent interaction with two older males after they had been placed in the same enclosure for the purpose of mating.
Another male leopard he brought from South Africa in February died of an apparent heart attack last month. A woman from the Namibia group, consisting of five males and three females, died of suspected kidney disease in March.
The three deaths prompted judges at India’s Supreme Court to appeal to the federal government Consider finding an alternative location For newly resettled cheetahs.
“Kunu is not enough to accommodate,” the Supreme Court bench told Justices BR Gavai and Sanjay Karol in New Delhi on Thursday. They were referring to a wildlife sanctuary, where the authorities have kept the cheetahs since their relocation.
“You’re getting animals from outside and there could be complete extinction in one place,” the judges added. “Why don’t you try some alternative treatment?”
They suggested that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government consider moving some cheetahs to Rajasthan, and warned that politics should not play a role. The judges said: “Just because Rajasthan is ruled by an opposition party does not mean that you will not consider it.”
The government representative, Aishwarya Bhatti, told the court that the deaths were being investigated and that other locations were under consideration.
The violent mating death of the female cheetah, known as Daksha, has raised some concerns that the confinement of the cheetahs in the Kono Reserve may have contributed to the aggressive behavior of the males.
Last month, a team of South African experts suggested to Kono Park officials that two men interact with Daksha. The gates to her enclosure have been opened for two big male cats, Agni and Vayu, and she was brought with them to India in February.
Daksha died just hours later, having been badly injured during her mating attempts. Jasbir Chauhan, the chief forest protection officer, said that the autopsy report indicated that her skull was “brutally crushed” by the two men and that her back was also severely injured.
“These injuries caused her death,” said Mr. Chauhan. We never expected this to happen. This was an unfortunate accident.”
In an earlier interview, Mr Chauhan said park officials had no experience with cheetahs and relied on the advice of the South African team.
When a male meets a female, experts say, interactions can be aggressive and typically intimidating to the female, whose territory often becomes limited during mating. If the female is not receptive, the male leopard will bite off its testicles.
A coalition of males often surrounds the female, and if she tries to flee, they slap and bite her, sometimes viciously attacking her neck, head, and vulva, leading to death. Males don’t finish mating unless they lose interest and turn away, according to experts.
said Vincent van der Merwe, an official with the Cheetah Metapopulation Initiative in South Africa, which is working with the Indian government to repopulate top predator cats.
Mr. Chauhan disagreed with that assessment, saying there had been detailed discussions about how to proceed with the mating sessions. “They know more about the cheetah than we do,” he said.
“They should have expressed the possibility of a backlash.”
Mr Merue also said the prolonged captivity of cheetahs in Qunu had led to high levels of stress among the big cats.
He said that over the course of 10 years, they observed males killing females on only four occasions. Most cheetah deaths involve male cheetahs killing other males.
Some big cat experts have also said that Kono, which has an area of about 748 square kilometers, is unsuitable for cheetahs that live in territories spanning thousands of square miles. They may face dangers from other predators and not having enough prey.
Previous efforts to reintroduce cheetahs to India have been unsuccessful. The latest attempt involves the Indian government’s plans to spend nearly $11 million over five years to determine if the largest number of predators can be restored in parts of the country where they once thrived. Up to 40 cheetahs may be part of the programme.
The cheetah species dates back about 8.5 million years, and its estimated population of just under 8,000, mostly in Africa and a few in Iran, has fallen by half over the past four decades.
Leopards, part of the folklore of rural India, carry great symbolism. After the reintroduction, Indian authorities believe the increased number of big cats is likely to benefit broader conservation goals by improving public protection and ecotourism in long-neglected areas.
the researchers acknowledged India’s plan to reintroduce the big cats was rushed and did not take into account the spatial environment. Kono are small and cheetahs may go far beyond their limits once newcomers are released into the wild.
While the previous two deaths were deemed normal by authorities, the death of the female cat could have been avoided, said wildlife researcher Ravi Chellam, adding that it was important to understand the context and causes of the deaths.
A low number of deaths does not necessarily mean that the project has failed, Mr. Chellam said, just as a small number of births does not indicate that the project has been successful. (One Namibian cheetah gave birth to four cubs.)
“The three cheetahs died in captivity even before they were released,” he said.