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KNP cheetahs have developed “winter cover” in 45-46 degrees in anticipation of African winter: Govt tells SC

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NEW DELHI, Aug 7 (PTI): The central government’s ambitious Project Cheetah is facing a major problem, with the animals translocated from South Africa developing a “winter cover”, a thick coat of fur, in anticipation of African winter, the Supreme Court was told on Monday.

Additional solicitor general Aishwarya Bhati told the court that this phenomenon was happening when the temperature at the Kuno National Park (KNP), where these cheetahs have been translocated, was around 45-46 degrees.

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Nine cheetahs, including three India-born cubs, have died in Madhya Pradesh’s KNP since March this year, raising questions about the management of the project.

At the outset, Bhati told a bench of Justices BR Gavai, PS Narasimha and Prashant Kumar Mishra that cheetah deaths at Kuno were troubling but not alarming.

“The number of deaths is not low given the fact that 20 cheetahs were translocated. Sum and substance of your argument is that everything is going well and there is nothing wrong. But the general public is concerned about what is being done about the deaths,” Justice Narasimhha told Bhati, who appeared for the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

The top court took note of a letter written to it by four South African wildlife experts who said some cheetah deaths could have been prevented with better monitoring and veterinary care. They had reportedly said their opinion was being ignored by the Project Steering Committee and also suggested some remedial measures.

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The bench noted Bhati’s submission that experts are being consulted to check cheetah deaths at KNP and that though the letter in question was said to have been written by four experts, it was signed by only one.

“We see no reason to disbelieve counsel for the Union of India. It is an issue which is best left to the experts as the court is not an expert in the subject matter. Whether any experts need to be in the panel, it is up to the Union of India to consider. This court cannot thrust any expert in the panel,” the bench said.

Senior advocate Prashanto Chandra Sen, appearing for some experts, said it is an emergency situation and experts like MK Ranjitsinh and YB Jhala may be included in the panel of cheetah experts for the project.

The bench asked how can it direct that a particular person be included in the list of experts when already there are experts from South Africa and Namibia.

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“Just because you are an expert, you need to be there in the panel? Sorry, that cannot be done. There are already enough experts in the panel,” it said.

Bhati submitted intercontinental translocation of the big cats under Project Cheetah was first of its kind in the world, and every year around 12-14 cheetahs will be translocated for the next five years subject to their availability.

The government’s law officer said several media reports about cheetahs were factually wrong and creating a lot of confusion. She said a mechanism is being considered for disseminating regular updates about Project Cheetah.

“None of the cheetahs have died due to unnatural reasons such as poaching, snaring, poisoning, road hits, electrocution etc. Cheetah is a very vulnerable and fragile species, even where translocation is not done. The Cheetah Project is on the path of positive progression,” she said.

Under Project Cheetah, a total of 20 animals were imported from Namibia and South Africa to the KNP in two batches in September 2022 and February this year.

The Supreme Court had in January 2020 lifted the ban it had imposed on the project in 2013 following a petition filed by the NTCA. The court continues to monitor the project.

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