India's Cheetah reintroduction programme is on track, the animals have adapted to their new environment and currently there are no challenges facing the project, Cheetah Conservation Fund founder Laurie Marker said on Sunday.
She, however, cautioned that this does not mean there won't be any losses of animals going forward.
In a conversation with PTI on the phone, Marker, who has been instrumental in drafting plans for the introduction, said: "We feel the project is on target. We have learned a lot. The animals have adapted, and they are doing well. But that does not mean there won't be any more losses of the animals because reintroduction is a very big and hard job."
In a letter addressed to the Indian Supreme Court in July, African experts, including Marker, had expressed grave concerns about Project Cheetah's management. They had questioned the project's communication gaps and sluggish response to critical issues.
They had also said some cheetah fatalities could have been prevented with improved monitoring and timely veterinary care.
Asked whether these issues have been resolved, Marker said: "The issues have definitely been discussed with the Indian officials, and the team working well together. The Indian authorities are consulting the African experts when required. There has been regular exchange of information between CCF experts and Indian officials associated with Project Cheetah."
"At the moment, there are no challenges to the Cheetah Project. If there are any challenges in the future, these will be addressed as we go forward," she added.
While some experts have questioned the scientific basis of the project, the American zoologist and researcher emphasised that extensive scientific data is being collected by the Wildlife Institute of India and their students on a daily basis.
"I do not agree that scientific data is not being collected," said Marker, who has come to India several times in connection with the cheetah reintroduction programme since 2009.
Project Cheetah, India's ambitious initiative to reintroduce cheetahs after their extinction in the country, marks its first anniversary on Sunday.
The initiative began on September 17 last year when Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a group of cheetahs brought from Namibia into an enclosure at Madhya Pradesh's Kuno National Park. Since then, the project has been closely watched by conservationists and experts worldwide.
Twenty cheetahs were imported from Namibia and South Africa to Kuno in two batches - one in September last year and the second in February.
Since March, six of these adult cheetahs have died due to various reasons. In May, three of the four cubs born to a female Namibian cheetah succumbed to extreme heat. The remaining cub is being raised under human care for future wilding.
Despite initial setbacks and difficulties that prompted a decision to recapture the animals and bring them to the bomas (enclosures), Marker emphasised that these experiences are being used to reassess strategies before the cheetahs are released in the wild once again.
On concerns about native endangered species being ignored with the government focus on cheetah conservation, she said one of the key goals of the Cheetah reintroduction programme is to restore habitats where critically endangered species like the Indian Great Bustard reside.
"The cheetah reintroduction programme is about getting the communities to be the members of conservation teams on a global scale. It's not just about funding but also about the people on the ground who understand the value of conservation and its benefits," she said.
Marker said that South Africa will be the main source of cheetahs to be introduced into India in the future.
"That was the plan. However, Namibia may also provide some more cheetahs at some point if needed," she added.
The CCF, which has closely assisted Indian authorities in re-introducing cheetahs in India, in a statement said that while the initial year of the historic reintroduction of cheetahs in India has been marked by setbacks, the Project Cheetah team remains dedicated to its mission.
"The project is on track, and Namibia is proud to be a part of expanding the cheetahs' territory into India," said Peter Katjavivi, Namibia's Speaker of the National Assembly, and CCF's International Patron.