The Supreme Court on Thursday questioned the Centre why it was perceiving the cheetah project in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park as a “prestige issue”, Bar and Bench reported. The court was hearing a petition related to the deaths of the feline species.

Twenty cheetahs were translocated to the Kuno National Park from South Africa and Namibia last year. Since March, eight cheetahs have died, including three cubs born in India.

On Thursday, a three-judge bench of Justices BR Gavai, JB Paridwala and Prashant Kumar Mishra noted that the deaths were a matter of worry.

“Two more deaths last week...Why is this becoming a prestige issue?” Justice Gavai remarked, according to Bar and Bench. “...40% deaths [of the cheetahs brought to India] occurring in less than a year does not paint a good picture.”

Also Read: The dark clouds over India’s cheetah project

The court reiterated its suggestion to relocate some of the cheetahs to Rajasthan. It had first made the suggestion in May after three of the adult cheetahs had died. The court had also said that the matter should not be politicised because an Opposition party is in power in Rajasthan.

On Thursday, Justice Gavai again urged the Centre to move some of the feline species to the Congress-ruled state.

“One of the sanctuaries in Rajasthan is very famous for leopards,” Gavai said in an oral observation. “...Have one more sanctuary there for cheetahs, consider it as a positive bias.”

Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati did not respond directly to the suggestion but assured the court that the Centre was taking all necessary efforts for the cheetah project. She added it was expected that half of the cheetahs brought from Africa would not survive, Bar and Bench reported.

The cheetahs were reintroduced to India in September, seven decades after the species was declared extinct by the Indian government in 1952.

The first casualty was reported on March 27 when Sasha died due to a kidney ailment. The second feline, Uday, died due to cardio-pulmonary failure on April 24. The third one, Daksha, died during a mating attempt on May 9. Three cubs born in India also died in May. The seventh cheetah, Tejas, died on July 11 and the eighth, Suraj, died on July 14.

On Monday, the Madhya Pradesh government removed the state’s chief wildlife warden JS Chauhan, a day after he said that he was considering removing radio collars from 10 cheetahs and monitor them for any infections. Chauhan made the remarks after experts said that the cheetahs could have died due to infection caused by radio collars.

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, however, rejected the claims, saying that they were not based on scientific evidence and that “all mortalities are due to natural causes”.

South African cheetah expert Adrian Tordiffe, who was involved in the translocation project, said he was “shocked” at the decision as Chauhan “was an expert and quite a sensible man”.

In February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that India has a chance to restore an element of biodiversity that had been lost long ago by reintroducing the felines.

However, experts say that India does not have the habitat or prey species for African cheetahs and that the project may not fulfil its aim of grassland conservation.