For the First Time the Official Tale of Kuno Cheetahs




Ahead of the first anniversary of the  controvertial cheetah project  and the release of African cheetahs in  Kuno national park,  interesting observations have been shared by the  director of the park where   14 cheetahs await re-release in the wild. They were caught   and brought back to bomas following 6 cheetah deaths after septicemia caused by abrasion from   satellite collars.   Uttam Kumar Sharma , the park director has dwelt in detail on cheetah movements and their exploration of the landscape , their interaction with each other and the  efforts  made by the  park management to  monitor the  animals  round the clock as he tried to hammer home a point- African cheetahs are adapting fast in India.

 Asha: The Hope  

Asha cheetah with a kill

Based upon his observations, Sharma has released newsletters   revolving around   two cheetah coalitions -Gaurav-Shaurya (Rockstars) and Agni-Vayu (White walkers), Asha, the female cheetah from Namibia and  Jwala and her Indian born cubs. The story  of the two coalitions “brought glimpses of the future of things in store, so early in the cheetah project, indicating  adoption of Kuno as a suitable habitat and adaptation  by cheetahs in a very short span of time”, Sharma claimed.  Asha, “the Namibian wanderer” presents the story of a female who not only explored Kuno but also successfully adopted landscape geography and  the hot Indian summer. “ Overall , Asha’s journey  indicates  the cheetah expressing its  normal exploratory instincts  and adaptation in a new place  and   this is a great hope  for the  project  in India”, he reiterates.  As Asha explored the landscape making  kills- some time blackbucks and  also chousingha or the four horned antelope  – she also entered Madhav national park  on May 27  after crossing  NH25  with the help of an underpass. 

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Three days later she headed towards the  tiger territory in the park where  one male and two females were translocated in March  this year. On May 30, she was located   resting in a jungle patch barely a km from the tiger. But from here she stopped her eastward journey and moved on towards south as she changed her course of movement. She was captured  as she  headed towards Uttar Pradesh. Aasha’s journey taught us that cheetahs can survive Indian conditions without changing their behaviour much. If the right amount of protection  from humans can be given, cheetah can manage rest .The Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFC&C)  is in process of putting back the radio collars around the necks of all the  surviving cheetahs  in kuno to re release them in the wild one by one , may be from September 17, on the occasion of the birthday of the prime minister Modi. The first batch of 8 cheetahs  from Namibia landed in India on the same date one year ago in 2022. In February this year, 12 more cheetahs  reached Kuno from South Africa.

 Tale of  cheetah coalitions and  hard work of cheetah trackers 

cheetah coalition

By the time South African (SA)cheetahs arrived in India, Rockstars, a male coalition of two Namibian cheetahs, Gaurav-Shaurya, aged around 6 years, had already made their name in India.  They were first to be released in Soft Release Boma  from Quarantine  Boma (QB). They made their first hunt on Indian soil as soon as they were released in Kuno. They were rightly dubbed as ‘Future of Kuno’. Normally, a coalition is much stronger in terms of having a territory, surviving predators, and hunting successfully, compared to a single cheetah. A single cheetah would not fight a coalition as it is sure to lose. But territorial fights are common between different. Amongst the cheetahs that arrived from SA, there were two coalitions, of two cheetahs each. Of these two coalitions, one coalition, named Agni-Vayu, also known as ‘White walkers’, aged 7.5-8 years, was particularly known for their aggressive behaviour and occupying large territories in SA after  defeating many cheetah coalitions  in violent clashes. The park management, said the field director, monitored the four cheetahs  24X7 for the purpose of for the purpose of monitoring specific aspects like belly score, overall health, and behaviour.  

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Tracking a cheetah round the clock is a unique concept. Nowhere in the world, a cheetah is tracked 24X7. Cheetahs have  been reintroduced in many  African countries but they were  never monitored the way it was done in India .  Here at Kuno , he  said, every cheetah out in open forest is tracked by a team consisting of 3 people  including a forest guard, a watcher, and a driver at any given time and this team  has a dedicated vehicle with radio antenna and other accessories. In all there are nine such people so that  teams of three each can go on monitoring  day in and day out. Rockstars, though younger than Agni- Vayu and in their prime, were not considered any match for Agni-Vayu. Rockstars were released in an open forest on March 22  and Agni-Vayu on May 19 . Rockstars had a head start of two months in the wilderness of Kuno compared to Agni-Vayu, and by the time Agni-Vayu were released in the wild, Rockstars were already down in the forest area near the enclosure at Palpur.   

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“ This adoption of Kuno NP after quick selection of area by Rockstars gives lots of hope and indications that cheetahs can adapt quite well and early”, he said.  Looking at the territory occupied by Rockstars,  the coalition of Agni-Vayu were released at the place called Nayagaon in Palpur west range, 10-12 km away from the enclosure towards north, on the other side of Kuno river.  This was done to avoid any future conflict with Rockstars. But Agni-Vayu had different plans. Within 48 hours, they reached the enclosure at Palpur in Kuno park  from where they were released, crossing the Kuno river, the field director said. After exploring the area for a few days, they must have sensed presence of Rockstars in that area. It was around June 20 they came close to each-other quite a few times  and it continued in the next few days, giving tense sleepless nights to all the field staff and tracking teams as they feared bloody fights. Tracking teams of both the coalitions were following every move of them very closely during these days as they were briefed what could possibly happen and what they are suppose do .The job of the tracking team is also to observe any change in behaviour, laziness, any sign of injury, limping, and the belly score (gives indication of fullness of stomach). The interesting fact is that all cheetahs do not behave in the same way. There are some who would not mind human presence, some allow only one or two people to come close, and there are some who would not tolerate close proximity of humans.  

Fierce Cheetah fight 

cheetah rescue

As they tracked the two -cheetah coalitions  they observed that despite all efforts to keep both coalitions at bay, they finally met and fought on the June  26 evening. It was a hot and humid day with the highest temperature running above 38 degrees and humidity above 80%.  They saw a fierce battle of the spotted cats .It was a one-on-one fight- Gaurav  taking on Agni  while Shaurya   and Vayu attacked each other. The tracking teams  were  already trained and briefed  about the steps  to be taken while attempting  to separate cheetahs during fight. They   carried  fire crackers and also fire extinguishers.  The sound of gas gushing out from the fire extinguisher was supposed to have a scary effect on them, but they realized that it  was hardly  of any use when cheetahs  actually fight.  The last resort was to separate them physically, like a referee in wrestling bouts.”  With a stick in hand, one can also go down on foot on the  battle ground to separate fighting cheetahs. “It does  require  lots of courage to meddle with two fighting  cheetahs”, observed the field director. With all the tricks and cautions in the mind, tracking teams were readying themselves for any eventuality. But as field conditions always teach you, everyone was caught by surprise by the lightning speed with which the cheetahs attacked each other . And as the cats were engaged in bitter fight, the trackers found themselves helpless.

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They did burst crackers and also used  made noise  of fire extinguishers to scare the cheetahs but in vain. “ Gathering courage then the trackers went down on foot to save and finally, could separate Gaurav from Agni, but by that time Agni was lying down in a pool of blood unable to move and Gaurav staring from distance. Shaurya was still chasing Vayu and during the chase skirmishes were taking place. Shaurya   had an edge over Vayu. Soon the control room was alerted and the veterinarians  and support staff reached the staff within no time It was around 7:30 pm in the evening and it was getting dark.  Vets immediately decided to immobilize and treat Agni and it was done. He was immediately brought to the quarantine boma for further treatment. All kept their fingers crossed and prayed. The other tracking team reported that Vayu is not seen and has run away from the spot. Rockstars were around and looked ok, without any injuries. Search for Vayu began. It was 9 pm in the night and getting pitch dark. Soaked in sweat and exhausted,  the vets and trackers with undeterred resolve put all their might to locate Vayu.  But the cheetah was not allowing the team to come close and  was  moving constantly. 

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After chasing  the cheetah for a while, the team decided to call it a day. The only reassuring thing was that he was moving and everybody hoped that the animal must be fine and would be able to survive the night. It was a tense night for all. Not sure whether Agni-Vayu will survive the night, everybody waited for the sunrise. At the crack of the dawn , everyone was in the field. Morning brought good news. Rockstars were tracked, observed, and looked good. Agni survived the night and Vayu was observed moving and changing location in the night. Finally, Vayu was immobilized, and brought to  a quarantine enclosure or boma  by the other coalition partner. Vayu seems to be fine with only minor injuries on the face. It was confirmed by  the vets that Agni will survive and Vayu is mostly fine. It brought cheers to the faces of all after an enduring night.  Rockstars became the undisputed king of the territory,a complete journey for them and a bright future for cheetahs in Kuno NP. Overall, these observations provide insights into the challenges and successes of introducing  African cheetahs into Kuno national park, showcasing their ability to adapt to their new habitat and offering hope for the future of the project in India, the field director said.

By Deshdeep Saxena

Images  courtsey Uttam Kumar Sharma, Field director Kuno national park , Banner image  Rockstars cheetah coalition