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Reintroduced cheetahs may cause conflicts with nearby farmers

Seven decades ago, the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) – a subspecies of the globally endangered cheetah – was driven to extinction on the Indian subcontinent. In September 2022 and February 2023, twenty cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa were introduced in the Kuno National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh to act as a first nucleus of a new cheetah population in the country. 

However, in a letter published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice, a team of researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) has argued that this reintroduction plan failed to take into account the structure of the socio-spatial system cheetahs usually live in, characterized by widely spread territories and densities of less than one individual per 100 km². As the Kuno National Park is relatively small, with an area of approximately 750 km², it is likely that the released animals will move far beyond the park’s boundaries and possibly cause significant conflicts with neighboring villages.

Male cheetahs use two different spatial tactics. While “territory holders” occupy locations consisting of a set of major communication hotspots, males without territories, or “floaters,” move between existing territories, as do females. “The territories do not border each other, their centers are always about 20 to 23 kilometers apart,” explained senior author Jörg Melzheimer, the project coordinator of the Cheetah Research Project at Leibniz-IZW. “The space between the territories is not defended by any male, it is the living and transit space for floaters and females.”

Such a deeply rooted behavior will likely lead to a system in India with similar territories. “This distance is independent of the actual size of the territories or the prey base,” said lead author Bettina Wachter, an Evolutionary Ecologist at Leibniz-IZW. “In Namibia, territories are larger and prey density lower, in East Africa territories are smaller and prey density higher – but the distance between territories is a constant and no new territories are established in between. For the reintroduction plan in Kuno National Park, these distances were ignored.”

According to the experts, with the cheetahs transferred from Namibia in 2022 – including three males – the carrying capacity of the Kuno National Park has already been reached, leaving no room for further territories for the cheetahs transferred this year from South Africa. “We therefore predict that cheetahs will most likely be also found far outside the national park and could come into conflict with farmers in the vicinity of the park,” the researchers warned.

These findings highlight the necessity to take into account the spatial organization of this species in case of all future reintroductions of cheetahs in India, and thus pro-actively address possible conflicts.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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