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Seven cheetahs born in Kuno: Challenges, survival chances, and the wild-vs-protected debate

Context- Wildlife authorities at Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh are overjoyed with the arrival of seven cheetah cubs in January this year. The Namibian Cheetah Jwala gave birth to four of these cubs, while the other three were born to Asha. These seven newborns, along with a 10-month-old female from Jwala, represent the future of Project Cheetah, a bold initiative to reintroduce Cheetahs to India. The demise of seven adult cheetahs and three cubs last year was a setback, but these recent births have renewed optimism that the cheetahs are adapting to the Indian environment.

What are the different stages in a Cheetah cub’s life?

  • Cheetah cubs are born after a gestation period of 93 days, with litters ranging from one to six. At birth, they are blind and helpless, weighing between 8.5 to 15 ounces. Their mother provides warmth and security, grooming them patiently.
  • After a few days, the mother leaves to hunt, leaving the cubs in a secluded nest for six to eight weeks. The cubs start accompanying their mother when they are around six weeks old, a period fraught with danger as less than one in ten survive.
  • Their only protection is a long mantle of hair on their backs, which keeps them warm and camouflages them from predators.
  • Between four to six months, the cubs become active and playful, climbing ‘play trees’ that serve as vantage points for surveying the landscape. Around one year of age, they start hunting with their mother, learning essential skills like prey detection, stalking, chasing, capturing, and killing prey.
  • At about 18 months, they separate from their mother. Male siblings form a coalition and hunt together, while females lead a solitary life until they have their own cubs.

What do wildlife officials do when they suspect a pregnancy?

  • Cheetahs begin reproducing after reaching sexual maturity at 26-40 months and only conceive again once a litter is independent or lost. Pregnancy in cheetahs can be hard to confirm, especially in the first trimester.
  • Once pregnancy is confirmed, wildlife officials in Madhya Pradesh ensure the expecting mother is well-fed, maintaining ‘belly scores’ based on visual observations. The cheetahs are housed in large enclosures with a steady population of Chitals, ensuring the mothers are well-fed. Officials emphasize minimal intervention to avoid stressing the mother.
  • The presence or odor of males can be stressful for a mother with cubs, as there have been reported cases of infanticide in the wild.

What is the standard protocol to deal with cheetah mother and cubs?

  • Petro Van Eeden, General Manager at the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre in South Africa, emphasizes that cheetah cubs should stay with their mother, as they inherit crucial hunting instincts from her. Removing them is a last resort.
  • The mother should be supported in a way that minimizes stress, which is often caused by human activity. Visitors should not be allowed.
  • When the cubs are 8 weeks to 2 months old, vaccinations begin and are given at specific intervals. They also need supplements like Vitamin A, copper, and calcium for proper eyesight and bone development.
  • Eeden underscores the importance of maintaining a clean environment and limiting human interaction to prevent bacterial infections in the early stages of a cub’s life. Until they are vaccinated, they should be left alone.

When do officials need to intervene?

  • Jwala, a cheetah at the park, gave birth to her first litter last March, marking the first cheetah births in the park. Unfortunately, three of the cubs died in May due to harsh weather conditions. The only surviving cub, which was weak, was removed for its safety while Jwala was feeding.
  • However, when the cub was reintroduced to Jwala after a week, she attacked it. Officials believe this is because Jwala, being captive-raised, lacked the skills to care for her litter. Now, as a second-time mother, she is being closely monitored in hopes that she will care for her new cubs.
  • The manual suggests that if a female cheetah is neglectful or harmful to her cubs, they may need to be removed and hand-reared.

What are the chances of the cubs surviving?

  • A research paper highlights that first-time cheetah mothers often lose their entire first litter but gain valuable experience. It also states that in Tanzania’s Serengeti system, cheetah cubs have a mere 4.8% survival rate from birth to adolescence.
  • There’s an ongoing debate between South African experts, who disapprove of raising cubs and their mother in protected enclosures, and Kuno wildlife officials, who prefer raising the cubs in larger enclosures before releasing them into the wild. Experts argue that cubs should ideally be raised in the wild under free-ranging conditions.
  • They express concern that weak genetics may persist among captive cheetahs, weakening the gene pool and resulting in animals requiring constant human intervention for survival.
  • A senior South African cheetah expert involved in India’s Project Cheetah criticizes the artificial protection of cubs from danger in enclosures, arguing it doesn’t protect the best genetics. Housing cheetahs in small enclosures has been associated with stress-related behaviors, medical conditions, and reduced reproductive performance.
  • Eeden prefers a free cheetah mother raising her cubs, acknowledging the high risk involved. Kuno Park director Uttam Sharma states that both viewpoints are under consideration, with a decision pending from senior officials.

Conclusion- The process of reintroducing cheetahs into the wild in India is a complex and delicate task. The survival and adaptation of these magnificent creatures are influenced by numerous factors, including their genetic strength, environmental conditions, and human intervention. While there are differing viewpoints on the best methods for raising and protecting cheetah cubs, all parties involved agree on the importance of minimizing stress for the animals and preserving the best genetics. As the debate continues, the ultimate goal remains clear: to ensure the successful reestablishment and survival of cheetahs in their natural habitat.

The recent births in Kuno National Park have brought renewed hope and optimism towards achieving this goal. However, the journey is fraught with challenges and requires continuous learning, adaptation, and careful decision-making.

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