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What went wrong with Kuno’s cheetahs and their radio collars?

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What went wrong with Kuno’s cheetahs and their radio collars?

Context- Three cheetah deaths and serious infection in another six animals have been attributed to injuries, possibly caused by ticks festering under their radio collars. While Tejas, Suraj and Dhatri died between July 11 and August 2, the collars were taken off Payak, Aasha, Dheera, Pavan, Gaurav and Shaurya.

Radio-collaring is a valuable tool in ecological research for tracking animal movements and behaviour to aid conservation efforts. However, experts say careful considerations are neccessary to ensure the safety and well-being of the animals involved.

Except for one cheetah that has gone missing, all the surviving ones are now being looked after inside enclosures.

(Credits- Indian Express)

Barring further setbacks, they are likely to be released again in the wild, with collars fitted, once the rains stop and the temperature drops in Kuno.

What may have gone wrong in Kuno?

  • The deaths of several cheetahs due to similar injuries and infection close to the collar are worrying. That such injuries went unnoticed for so long that serious infection set in and caused death indicates poor field monitoring by inexperienced persons.
  • Any irritation and injury on the neck will cause the animal to constantly shake its head to keep the flies away. This will reflect in an overwhelmingly active signal every hour. An experienced monitoring staff would notice this unusual active signal and investigate. Once an animal is in sight, it would be simple to figure out the source of restlessness.
  • When not fitted properly — too loose, for example — a collar’s regular movement can cause rubbing and injury. The neck is not of a continuous width — it is wider close to the body and narrower close to the head. Injury can happen when the collar is not placed snugly close to the chin but elsewhere on the neck as it can move between where it was placed and the chin, which can lead to problems.
  • Placing a collar in summer or winter also makes a difference and the tightness of the collar must be adjusted accordingly.
  • In all GPS tags, it is a trade-off between the quantity of information and the longevity of the battery. The rule of thumb is that the collar should weigh under 3% of the body weight.
  • However, this depends on the activity and locomotion of the species. Some species (such as cheetahs) require lighter collars because of their speed and the sudden sharp turns they can take while chasing prey. This can result in extra stress on the skin around the neck.
  • Sometimes the animal can lose body condition and the collar can become loose and can cause abrasion. Or the animal could increase in body weight or put on a thicker coat during winter, causing the collar to become too tight. It requires an experienced hand to properly fit collars or other types of tags.
  • The cheetahs need to be fitted with lighter collars with a softer belt material. Also, there needs to be better monitoring of the animals with on-field observations.
  • Today’s collars may include accelerometers, sound recorders, or temperature recorders. But a feature shouldn’t be added if unnecessary.
  • A collar’s weight is determined mostly by the size and weight of the transmitter. A lighter collar usually has a shorter battery life/limited range, leading to more replacements. Generally, these days, collars are fitted with VHF and GPS, often with a remote or timed drop-off mechanism.
  • For young animals, expandable, breakaway collars should be considered. Injuries from collars are rare but can exacerbate other injuries (from snares, for example).

What is the reason for problems in Kuno?

  • According to what has appeared in the news, the eight cheetahs in Kuno have suffered skin infections, with three fatalities. With the rest having been treated with antibiotics, the doctor’s problem is resolved, but the scientist’s query persists.
  • The current hypothesis likens the issue to a chain reaction: heavy rain, high temperature, collar fitment, and winter coat development kept moisture under the collar, leading to skin infection, attracting flies, causing maggots, spreading bacteria, and proving fatal.
  • Using collar-attached accelerometers, the researchers found that during movement, the forces exerted by collars were equivalent to up to five times the collar’s weight for a lion and a massive 18 times for a cheetah. In theory, that would make a standard 400 g collar ‘weigh’ more than 7 kg on a sprinting cheetah — a lot of weight to carry on a wet coat.
  • Low immunity, novel pathogens: The pathogens that aggravated the wound under the collar could be novel either to the African cheetahs or to Indian conditions. These animals could be vulnerable to certain local pathogens. Or they could have carried some dormant pathogens that flourished in Kuno given the animals’ loss of immunity due to stress.

Way Forward- Through research needs to be carried out to further understand the combined impact of collar, monsoon and stress on the animal going forward.

Syllabus- GS-3; Environment and Wildlife

Source- Indian Express

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