The Supreme Court on Thursday expressed serious concern over the death of three cheetahs translocated from South Africa and Namibia to Kuno National Park (KNP) of Madhya Pradesh in less than two months and asked the Centre to rise above politics and consider shifting them to Rajasthan.
A bench of justices BR Gavai and Sanjay Karol told the Centre that from reports of experts and articles, it appears that KNP does not seem to be sufficient for such large number of cheetahs and the Union government may consider shifting them to other sanctuaries.
"Three deaths (of cheetahs) in less than two months is a matter of serious concern. There are opinions of experts and articles in media. It appears that Kuno is not sufficient for so many cheetahs. There is too much concentration of cheetahs at one place. Why don't you look for suitable place in Rajasthan? Merely because Rajasthan is ruled by opposition party does not mean, you will not consider it," the bench said.
Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the Centre said the task force is seized of the deaths and is investigating all possible aspects including shifting them to other sanctuaries.
On March 27, a female Cheetah named Sasha (from Namibia) died due to kidney ailment, on April 23, Uday (S Africa) died due to cardio-pulmonary failure and on May 9, another South African female cheetah named Daksha, died following a violent interaction with a male during a mating attempt.
The bench said from the reports it seems one cheetah died after suffering injuries during a fight between two males over mating and one died of kidney related ailment.
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"We came to know that the cheetah which died due to kidney related ailment was suffering from the problem before being brought to India. Question is how was that female cheetah cleared to be brought to India, if the feline was suffering from ailment," the bench said.
Bhati said autopsies of all the deaths were done and task force is investigating the issue.
"You are bringing the cheetahs from abroad, it's a good thing. But they need to be protected. They need to be given suitable habitat, why don't you explore for more suitable habitat than Kuno", the bench said, adding that it is not casting any aspersions on the government but expressing concern over the deaths.
Bhati said one cheetah has given birth to four cubs which shows that they are acclimatising well in Kuno.
Justice Gavai, who is heading the green bench of the apex court, said environmental issues concern him very much and it is a subject which is close to his heart.
Bhati said death of cheetahs is not an unusual thing but they are thoroughly investigating and if the court wishes, the government would like to file an additional affidavit giving the details of the deaths.
The bench said it not doubting the intent of the government but there are articles and reports of cheetah experts in newspapers and therefore the Centre must consider at least one or more habitat for them.
"The cheetahs were brought subsequent to orders of this court. It appears Kuno is not sufficient for them, therefore consider transferring them to other sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan, wherever it suitable," the bench said, adding the government should consider taking views from cheetah experts.
Justice Gavai told Bhati, "Don't bring party-politics into this issue. Consider all the available habitats, whatever is suitable for them. I will be glad if cheetahs are brought to Maharashtra."
Bhati said Mukundara National Park is ready and the task force is also considering transferring some of them to other national park in Madhya Pradesh.
"There are no cheetah experts in India as cheetahs went extinct from the country in 1947-48. Since then our officials have been to South Africa, Namibia and undergone specialized training on Cheetah management", Bhati said, adding if the court is considering hearing views of cheetah experts, then it should hear all of them and not one or two, who have particular kind of opinions.
The bench then asked the apex court-constituted expert committee to give its suggestion to the national task force on cheetah in 15 days, so that it could be considered.
It posted the matter for further hearing after summer vacation.
The top court's direction came while hearing an application filed by the Centre seeking direction from the court that it is no longer necessary and mandatory for the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) to continue taking the guidance and advice of the expert committee appointed by this court through an order dated January 28, 2020.
The top court had then said that the three-member committee comprising former director of wildlife protection M K Ranjit Sinh, chief conservator of forests, wildlife administration in Uttarakhand Dhananjai Mohan and the DIG (Wildlife) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) will guide the NTCA in the introduction of African cheetahs in India.
On March 28, a day after the first death of cheetah at Kuno, the top court had sought details of experts in the Cheetah Task Force such as their qualification and experience.
The Centre, in its application said that according to the action plan for cheetah introduction in India, annually 8-14 big cats are required to be brought in from African countries for the next five-years at least and an memorandum of understanding in this regard has been signed by the government of India with Namibia and South Africa for cooperation in the field of cheetah conservation.
Giving the details, the Centre said that following the signing of the MOU, "in a historic wild to wild intercontinental translocation of large carnivore, eight cheetahs were transported from Namibia to India on September 17, 2022 and were released into the quarantine enclosures in Kuno National Park of Madhya Pradesh".
The government said that as per MoU with South Africa, 12 cheetahs -- seven males and five females -- were translocated from South Africa to KNP on February 18, 2023.
It said that this entire exercise of cheetah introduction in India has been carried out under the expert guidance and supervision of the International cheetah experts, scientists, veterinarians, forest officials and NTCA in consultations with the committee appointed by this court vide order dated January 28, 2020.
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