No human settlements, thriving prey base: Why Kuno was picked as home for African cheetahs
Stretching up to 748 square kilometres in the vast forest landscape of Madhya Pradesh, Kuno Palpur National Park is set to be the new home of the eight African Cheetahs when they land in India on Saturday. Devoid of any human settlements, the region is very close to the Sal forests of Koriya, now in Chhattisgarh, where the native Asiatic Cheetah was perhaps last spotted almost 70 years ago.
Except the high mountains, coasts and the northeast region, a large part of India is considered a cheetah habitat niche, considering the climatic variabilities most suited for the wild cat. So Kuno was not the only site that the authorities had in mind when the project was first proposed over a decade ago.
As many as 10 sites across the Central Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh were surveyed between 2010 and 2012 of which Kuno was eventually chosen as the most preferred habitat based on the assessment carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) in adherence to the IUCN guidelines which take into account the climatic variables, prey densities, population of competing predators, as well as the historical range.
Vast Prey Base
One of the top predators, the cheetah lives in areas where its prey base thrives — the dry open forests, savannas, and grasslands. Nestled inside the large Sheopur-Shivpuri dry deciduous open forest landscape spanning an area of 6,800 square kilometres, the 748-square kilometre has dry savannah forest, scrubs and grasslands with the perennial Kuno River flowing through its terrain.
Of this landscape, an area of 3,200 square kilometres is potential cheetah habitat and can be initially managed as the potential buffer zone for Kuno park before it is upgraded into a protected area in the long run. As per the estimate made by Wildlife Institute of India during 2021, the national park had the highest densities of chital, followed by peafowl, hare, langur, and sambar among wild prey. Other prey found in the area are wild pig, nilgai, chowsingha and feral cattle.
One of the foremost considerations was that the site required least management interventions since a lot of restorative investments had been done in this Protected Area for reintroducing Asiatic lions from Gujarat — a long-standing project that is yet to take off. In 2019, the old sanctuary, which was limited to an area of around 354 square km, was further upgraded to a national park, providing a much larger area. The park today covers nearly 748 sq km of area which has been readied to ensure a successful translocation, with adequate space for 6 sq km fenced enclosures for soft release of the feline and trained staff to monitor the animals.
Devoid of Human Settlements
Though conflicts with human interests are lowest for cheetahs since they are not a threat to humans and usually do not attack large livestock, space is an important consideration for the wild cat, also known for being the fastest land animal.
Unfortunately, high population density and fast depleting open grasslands is one of the most limiting resources for India, where many protected areas and most forests are inhabited by humans and their livestock.
Kuno, on the other hand, is probably one of the few wildlife sites in the country where there has been a complete relocation of roughly 24 villages and their domesticated livestock from inside the park years ago. These village sites and their agricultural fields that were inside the park have now been taken over by grasses and are managed as savannah habitat. Encroachment of grasslands by unpalatable plant species and weed species remains a concern, and the authorities had already cleared the area which was selected for the soft release of the cheetahs.
Co-existence and densities of competing predators
According to the government’s Action Plan, Kuno offers the prospect of housing four large felines in India — tiger, lion, leopard and cheetah — and ensuring they coexist as they did in the past. While the only surviving population of lions is in Gujarat, Kuno was initially proposed to provide a second home to the top predator.
It has a significant population of leopards with a density of about nine leopards per 100 square kilometres. This remains a concern, considering the much-stronger leopard has an advantage over the light and slender cheetah, whose strength mainly lies in its blazingly fast speed. They are also believed to have more adaptive potential and a wider habitat than the cheetah.
However, both are known to coexist in the wild if adequate prey base and other resources are available. According to authorities, with prey restoration, reintroduction of lions as well as colonization by tigers in the future are both viable possibilities in the Kuno landscape.
The government estimate says the national park can house as many as 21 cheetahs at present and, if necessary efforts are made and prey base is maintained, it can even potentially hold 36 of them. Simultaneously, restorative investments in other selected areas (Nauradehi and Gandhisagar Protected Areas) have already begun in the form of incentivised voluntary relocation of human settlements, prey supplementation, and habitat management through weed removal and livestock grazing control.
If the current translocation is successful, the plan is to establish a meta-population of cheetahs at Kuno and work towards translocating the wild cat in the other selected locations.