Move to introduce African cheetahs in India prompts questions

A female cheetah and its cubs in a national park in southern Kenya. An ambitious Indian government plan to introduce the African cheetah - which is distinct from the Asiatic cheetah that once roamed in India - has received the go-ahead from the Supre
A female cheetah and its cubs in a national park in southern Kenya. An ambitious Indian government plan to introduce the African cheetah - which is distinct from the Asiatic cheetah that once roamed in India - has received the go-ahead from the Supreme Court, but the plan has prompted concerns from wildlife conservationists.PHOTO: REUTERS

One night in 1947 while driving through the countryside, an Indian maharaja, infamous for his hunting exploits, shot dead three cheetahs. They turned out to be possibly the last of the species in India, and the animal is widely believed to have gone extinct here in the 1950s.

More than six decades later, an ambitious government plan to introduce the African cheetah - which is distinct from the Asiatic cheetah that once roamed in India - has received the go-ahead from the Supreme Court. The court had turned down a similar plan in 2013 for lack of preparedness but, in its order dated Jan 28, has now allowed the project to proceed.

It has done so following a government plea that was accompanied by an assurance that the animal will be introduced on an "experimental basis" in a carefully chosen habitat to see if it can adapt to conditions on the sub-continent. If required, the government may even relocate the cheetah in India.

The court has also constituted an expert committee to guide and direct the government on the project and asked it to report back every four months.

There is no word yet as to how soon this may happen but if the project comes through, India will have the distinction of hosting the cheetah - expected to be sourced from Namibia - along with big cats such as lions, tigers and leopards.

India's former environment minister Jairam Ramesh has welcomed the court's decision.

The plan, however, has prompted concerns from wildlife conservationists who have questioned the merit of such a move for a host of reasons. These include the lack of a policy to protect India's grasslands - essential to creating a viable habitat for the cheetah as it thrives in these areas - and the significant expenditure involved in bringing and stabilising a foreign species when conservation programmes for many endangered species in India continue to be underfunded.

Government data released last year showed India lost 31 per cent of its grassland area, or around 5.65 million hectares, in a decade from 2005 to 2015. The main reasons include diversion for uses ranging from agricultural to industrial, as well as overgrazing and deforestation. This has imperilled the fate of many charismatic fauna in these habitats like the Indian wolf, caracal and Great Indian Bustard.

"Where are the undisturbed grasslands and thorny shrub forests required to support a viable population of the cheetah in India?" said Ms Prerna Singh Bindra, a former member of the National Wildlife Board, pointing out that cheetahs are one of the most wide-ranging carnivores, with home ranges recorded to over a thousand sq km.

The idea to have cheetahs - the word is derived from the Sanskrit word for speckled (chitrah) - roaming through India again has been around for more than a decade. An initial plan involved sourcing Asiatic cheetahs from Iran, the only country to have them. It failed to make headway as Iran refused to part with some of its animals that, today, number fewer than 50.

PROPER HOME RANGE

Where are the undisturbed grasslands and thorny shrub forests required to support a viable population of the cheetah in India?

MS PRERNA SINGH BINDRA, a former member of the National Wildlife Board, who pointed out that cheetahs are one of the most wide-ranging carnivores, with home ranges recorded to over a thousand sq km.

Some believe the introduction of the cheetah - with the encompassing lure and buzz around a high-profile project - could help galvanise resources and attention required to protect grasslands, ignored so far as "wasteland", and the species that inhabit these areas.

This is what a 2010 report co-produced by the Wildlife Institute of India and the Wildlife Trust of India had argued.

However, Ms Bindra cautioned that the mere presence of the cheetah in India is unlikely to achieve "the miracle of saving our grasslands".

"We can't depend on this to happen," she told The Straits Times.

"Why don't we first have a policy to declare grasslands as ecologically protected areas that are regulated for any diversion before the cheetah comes?

"We don't because these are difficult political and economic decisions to take as it will deny that land to industries or other economic interests," she added.

One of the sites that could potentially host the cheetah is the Nauradehi sanctuary in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Fencing in the animal in one protected area, however, could create another conservation conundrum.

A genetically isolated population, such as the Asiatic lions that are limited only to Gujarat's Gir National Park, would remain vulnerable to any disease outbreak.

It is for this reason that the Supreme Court had in April 2013 ordered that some Asiatic lions be relocated to a national park in Madhya Pradesh to help preserve the species.

Nearly seven years since, not a single animal has been relocated. The suggested relocation of other endangered animals, such the Manipur brow-antlered deer, also continues to be delayed.

Ms Neha Sinha, a wildlife conservationist, also argued that a management regime for grasslands and thorn forests needs to precede the introduction of the cheetah.

"Unlike the tiger, the animal's ideal habitat is not greatly represented by forests covered under India's network of protected areas," she told ST.

Besides preventing over-exploitation of these areas, such a regime, said Ms Sinha, will require working with pastoralists, who use them to graze their cattle, to address concerns around the killing of livestock by the cheetah and prevent them from being poached.

"If we are bringing in the cheetah only to put it in one protected area, then that would not be of much use ecologically. The idea is not to make a safari or a zoo; the idea is to have the cheetah contribute to conservation and have ecological value," she added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2020, with the headline 'Move to introduce African cheetahs in India prompts questions'. Print Edition | Subscribe