This month, wildlife rangers in Kuno National Park in central India spent 10 days on the trail of Dhatri, a Namibian cheetah. When they finally caught up with her in the forest, they made a gruesome discovery. She was dead, her body infested with maggots that had burrowed through neck wounds around her radio collar.
Dhatri was one of 20 cheetahs transported to India from southern Africa last year and personally released into the park by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of a grand experiment: to reintroduce the species to the country more than 70 years after they were declared extinct there, hunted into oblivion under British colonial rule.
To supporters, “Project Cheetah” is a landmark conservation effort that, if successful, could provide a global blueprint for reviving animal populations and ecosystems. Modi has touted the project as a source of prestige that neatly mirrors his government’s stated ambition of restoring India to pre-colonial glory.
But it has taken an alarming turn. Nine cats — including three cubs born in India — have died of causes from malnutrition to collar infections that critics blame on inexperience, mismanagement and the government sidelining experts.
Now even longtime champions warn that Project Cheetah, decades in the making, is in jeopardy. Jairam Ramesh, a former environment minister from the opposition Congress party who pursued the initiative while in office, last month blamed the animals’ deaths on the government putting “vanity and showmanship” before science.
“This is the first intercontinental translocation of a carnivore,” said Yadvendradev Jhala, former head of the Wildlife Institute of India who helped spearhead the project but was removed this year. “The whole world is looking at this . . . We can’t afford to fail.”
Authorities had anticipated that half of the original 20 cheetahs would die within a year of being released into the wild from hazards such as poaching and leopard attacks, which have been documented in Africa.
But at least some of the deaths have occurred earlier and from causes that could have been prevented if authorities acted faster, experts said. Scientists believe that Dhatri and two other cheetahs developed fatal sores around their collars after heavy monsoon rains made their fur waterlogged.
A group of South African scientists affiliated with the project last month alleged in a letter to India’s Supreme Court that they were being “ignored” and “had to beg for information”, according to Indian media.
“It’s certainly a matter of concern for the whole country, and for all people involved in conservation, that there are so many deaths,” said MK Ranjitsinh, a celebrated naturalist appointed by the Supreme Court to monitor the project. Ranjitsinh said the government had not consulted him or other experts on the deaths. “The cheetah management should be on the expertise of the experts and not on the basis of bureaucratic hierarchy.”
Laurie Marker, the Namibia-based head of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which helped bring some of the cats to India, also wrote to the Supreme Court asking the authorities to improve transparency.
Modi’s government has dismissed the criticism. “Every cheetah is our responsibility [and] we share our opinion with the experts from Namibia and South Africa,” Bhupender Yadav, the environment minister, told reporters this month. “We are engaged in this project with full seriousness.”
Aseem Shrivastava, a forest official overseeing the project in Madhya Pradesh, added that the cheetahs had died from “natural reasons”.
The surviving cats have been relocated to large enclosures for closer monitoring, he said, and would be re-released after approval from a government-appointed expert committee.
The reintroduction plan has always divided conservationists, with supporters saying it would mobilise investment into reviving habitats while critics argue that authorities should prioritise India’s existing wildlife.
Valmik Thapar, a naturalist, goes further, arguing that historical records from recent centuries suggest India’s cheetahs were not indigenous but exotic pets kept by royals for hunting.
“We have lovely, rich wildlife left in pockets of India that require money to save,” he said. “Why would anyone want to reintroduce, or introduce . . . cheetahs to such unfriendly terrain, at a huge multimillion-dollar cost?”
Many communities around Kuno hope the newfound attention will bring much-needed development.
Prakash Jatav, whose village near the national park is lined with cheetah posters, last year sold two acres of land for about three times what it was worth before. A hotel is being built across the street. “If all goes well with the cheetahs, the prospects for this place will grow,” he said.
But he added that the project’s rocky start had scared off more investors. Kuno missed a target date to open to tourists in February. “People have developed cold feet about buying land here now,” he said. “The sanctuary project must succeed. If it fails, we are doomed.”
For others, the initiative has been a bitter experience. In preparation, authorities relocated dozens of villages from inside the forest that was mostly home to marginalised tribal populations.
Residents of Bagcha, the last village to be moved earlier this year, now live on an open plain near the park. They were compensated with land and cash but said their new location was less suitable for cultivation.
“There we had a very good life. We had access to a lot of things from the forest,” said Jamuna. “This land is just full of rocks. Our farming is gone.”
Other reintroduction efforts have had some success, such as lynx in Europe and wild horses in China. Authorities in Cambodia and Kazakhstan are now exploring reintroducing tigers.
For Project Cheetah to succeed, experts anticipate New Delhi will need to bring several batches of animals before they can establish a number of viable populations.
Marker, the Namibia-based expert, acknowledged that such schemes were akin to “playing God”. But with the cats under threat in many habitats, “one of the solutions is trying to re-establish ranges where the cheetahs once were”, she said.
“There will be a need for more reintroductions of many species. There will be winning in some areas and losing in others,” she added. “Right now, we’re losing in many of the places where cheetahs live.”