After prolonged deliberations Government of India has decided to reintroduce the Cheetah in the country. As many as eighteen cheetahs will be sourced from Africa and will be introduced into three sites, viz. Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary, Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary (both in Madhya Pradesh) and Shahgarh landscape near the international border in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. A project costing $ 65 million has been formulated and is likely to be implemented within three years. Each of the three sites will be allocated $ 22 million for preparation and restoration. Presumably each site will get three pairs of imported cheetahs which will be nurtured and encouraged to breed under the supervision of wildlife experts.
The decision was taken on the basis of the recommendations of wildlife experts, national and international, who met at Gajner in Rajasthan in September 2009. The rationale behind the decision was restoration of India’s natural heritage for “ethical and ecological” reasons. In the words attributed to Jairam Ramesh, the Indian Minister for Forests & Environment, “It is important to bring back cheetah, as it will restore grasslands of India. The way tiger restores forest ecosystem, snow leopard restores mountain ecosystem, Gangetic dolphin restores waters in the rivers, (the) same way cheetah will restore grasslands of the country.” (For a long time it has been felt that the Indian grasslands have been degrading because of over-grazing by antelopes and, of course, livestock.) Moreover, revival of the cheetah will bestow on India the distinction of being the only country with six of the eight big cats – a classification that is not quite scientific but is informally used to distinguish the larger felid species from smaller ones. With the exception of cougar and jaguar, the country will host the cheetah along with other big cats – lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards and clouded leopards.
Once upon a time India used to host cheetahs – a name that has been derived from the Sanskrit word “chitrakaya” meaning speckled – in great numbers. Emperor Akbar is reported to have maintained a stable of them in scores, tamed and trained for hunting antelopes. Even in the British colonial days these were kept in captivity and were mainly used for hunting, thus gaining another name – Hunting Leopards. Over time, however, the animals were mercilessly hunted down – like lions and tigers. Besides, the loss and degradation of their habitat contributed to their complete elimination from India by the middle of the last century.
Extinction of the species in India made it lose the “Indian” prefix. The Asiatic Cheetah (sub species: Acinonyx Jubatus Venaticus) earlier used to be largely known as “Indian Cheetah”. Currently, however, it has lost even its “Asiatic” prefix as it is mainly concentrated in Iran and, hence, is commonly known as “Iranian Cheetah”. Once roaming over the wilds of a huge range, from Middle East to the entire Indian sub-continent, the (Asiatic) Cheetah is now mostly confined to Iran in its Kavir desert region. There have been some stray sightings in Balochistan and Sindh provinces of Pakistan. According to researchers, not more than 100 Asiatic cheetahs are now estimated to be around, 70-odd of which are in Iran.
Reports had earlier appeared about India’s keenness to relocate a few Iranian cheetahs in reserves that are found suitable for them. Perhaps, it was felt that belonging to the same sub-species, the Iranian cheetahs will have a greater chance of survival in Indian conditions. It seems, the idea had to be abandoned because the Iranian cheetahs are critically endangered and withdrawal of even a few from the acutely limited stock would threaten the survival of the species. The country, therefore had to take recourse of procuring them from Africa where most of the game parks – and there are surfeit of them mostly located South of Sahara – have cheetahs in good numbers. Considered endangered, the African cheetah’s population is currently estimated to be around 12000 – enough for India to try and have eighteen of them relocated from there. Namibia is currently hotspot for the Cheetah as the efforts made by Cheetah Conservation Fund are increasingly proving to be successful. Nonetheless, as cheetahs in Namibia are reported to be sharing their habitat with farmers, man-animal conflicts are frequent leading to frequent kills. It has been estimated that all the three sites taken together have the potential to host 160 cheetahs, with Kuno-Palpur having the maximum potential – of hosting 70 cheetahs. Realisation of the potential will, however, depend on how well the sites are managed and made conducive to the animal’s proliferation.
There have, however, been reservations about the whole process. Firstly, of course, misgivings are always there about introduction of an alien species, an effort which not only is dicey, it also can cause all kinds of complications. Besides, the Indian record of wildlife conservation is not quite enviable. The country’s “Big Five” are under serious threat. The Asiatic Lion, numbering around 350, is concentrated in one sanctuary and cohabits with humans and their livestock. One single mishap could wipe off the entire species. Tigers, at the last count, were a precarious 1411 in number. Eleven adults have been lost in the first five months of 2010 along with a few cubs. The elephants are under threat from poachers, villagers and vehicles, including railway trains. The rhinos are vulnerable and are still under threat from poachers who are keen on their horn – supposedly an aphrodisiac. Leopards are being lost virtually at the rate of one every day. A cat comparable to cheetah, though belonging to genus “panthera”, has not been cared for so far, with no conservation policy for it yet in place. Its shrinking prey-base and habitat is driving it towards human settlements resulting in conflicts in which it invariably loses. Prerna Singh Bindra, a well-known naturalist, author and columnist, feels that the way the leopards are being killed it could well beat the tiger in the race to extinction. In the first 50 days of 2010 India lost as many as 60 leopards – more than one a day.
Worse, both the states, viz. Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, in the sanctuaries of which cheetahs are to be relocated, have had indifferent record of providing protection to big cats. Rajasthan had its debacle in Sariska Tiger Reserve as did the Madhya Pradesh wildlife administration had its own in Panna Reserve. In both the reserves, immensely popular as they were, tiger became extinct despite the local Reserve administration’s claims of their presence.
The record of the forest departments of various states in conservation of wildlife, therefore, is nothing to write home about. In this scenario one views the decision to introduce African Cheetah in Indian grasslands with trepidation. Relocation per se may not be a problem as Indian wildlifers have acquired some expertise, having relocated a number of tigers to Sariska and Panna Tiger Reserves and some rhinos from Kaziranga National Park to a neighbouring game park. After relocation the cheetahs may be nursed well enough and may even proliferate. But, what eventually would be vital is how the animals are monitored for their wellbeing and provided the necessary protection, particularly from poachers. Generally weak and, one dare say, even callous, the foresters’ lackadaisical attitude, corruption, turf wars, inadequate and ill-trained forest staff are the bane of Indian game parks, protected areas and other forests.
One can only hope that the foresters will shake off their lethargy and pull themselves up by their boot-straps to face the challenge of reviving the cheetah in the country where once it chased chinkaras and blackbucks with considerable freedom.