With few unconfirmed sightings in subsequent years, the species was declared extinct by the Indian state in 1952. Now, almost 70 years later, the world’s fastest mammal is set to walk the Indian grasslands again as the country prepares for their return.
Having reached an understanding with South Africa and Namibia, the first batch of African cheetah is expected to arrive by the end of this year - marking the first time that a large carnivore has been relocated from one continent to another.
“Cheetahs are the only large carnivore to have gone extinct since our independence. The main idea is to bring back the only big mammal species that we have lost in peninsular India in historical times,” shares MK Ranjitsinh, an eminent conservationist behind the cheetah introduction programme.
Though India’s supreme court allowed the programme on an experimental basis in January last year, the idea had been around for some time, Mr Ranjitsinh tells The Independent.
“I had first proposed the idea back in the early 1970s to then-prime minister Indira Gandhi,” he shares. “I was negotiating with Iran at the time for 250 Asiatic cheetah. Their Asiatic lion had disappeared while we had 260 lions.”
He got the go-ahead but the plan fell through. “There were several factors. The regime in Iran changed, Ms Gandhi in India fell from power at that time. And by the time she came back in the 1980s the number of cheetah had fallen tremendously.”
While the Asiatic cheetah was originally preferred for the project, this is no longer possible as the cheetah population has plummeted to under 50. Now classified as a “critically endangered” species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Asiatic cheetah is believed to have survived only in Iran – forcing India to turn to Namibia and South Africa to provide cheetah for its introduction programme.
“For any successful introduction programme, at least 30-40 individuals of a species must be supplied to the location where they are being introduced. There are not these many Asiatic cheetahs alive and therefore the plan fell through,” says Dr YV Jhala, a senior scientist at Wildlife Institute of India, who is overseeing the cheetah introduction programme. “The closest to Asiatic cheetah is African cheetah. They are the same species. All cheetahs including the Asiatic cheetah originated from Southern Africa.”
Mr Ranjitsinh believes that this programme will bring the much-needed focus to revive the ecology in which cheetah thrives. “We are a country where symbolism works greatly. If you want to save the forest, it will not have a large-scale appeal. But if you say that you want to save the forest for the tiger or save the mountains for the snow leopard, it registers,” he says.
“The greatest contribution of the Project Tiger is not that we saved the tiger. It is that we saved some of the most important, national, natural heritage which is a part of India, through the agency and the aura of the tiger.
“As a flagship species, the conservation of the cheetah will revive grasslands and its biomes and habitat, much like Project Tiger has done for forests and all the species that have seen their numbers go up. While there is a lot of emphasis on the preservation of forests, grasslands are a hugely neglected habitat in the country – we have a forest policy but not a grasslands policy. And our most threatened animals and birds are grassland-specific species.”
Cheetahs require vast tracts of grasslands, open woodlands and scrub-thorn forests with a huge prey base. According to an Amicus Curiae report submitted in the apex court in 2017, “the average home range of an adult cheetah varies from 100 sq kms to 1,500 sq kms”.
“Further, the prey base, constituting mainly of antelopes, has to be sufficiently large so that it can provide a young antelope almost every other day to an adult cheetah,” it added.
But the Amicus in its report took strong exception to India’s preparedness for the introduction of cheetahs saying that the areas proposed for the release of the species are “not the preferred habitat”.
Criticising the Wildlife Institute of India, the Amicus said that the sanctuary size in India is not comparable with that of Africa. “India has a population density of 394 persons per sq km and does not have any national park or a sanctuary of size comparable with the African parks which could accommodate a dozen cheetahs,” it said.
“There is no area in India which has a prey base of thousands of antelopes that could provide one small antelope every second or third day to the cheetah.”
Nearly four years since the report, Dr Jhala tells The Independent that Kuno-Palpur wildlife sanctuary in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh with a steady increase in the prey base, is almost ready for the big cat.
Kuno national park showed a “remarkable recovery in its habitat, prey abundance and reduction of human impact”, said a site assessment report prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India in compliance with the Supreme Court order.
Spread over an area of 748 sq kms, it has chital, sambar, nilgai, wild pig, chinkara and cattle as the prey base for felids, found the experts in their site assessment that they conducted from 25 to 29 November 2020.
Though in its list of actions, the report has sought relocation of two villages – Bagcha and Jahangarh, it suggested that the species introduction can commence in a “phased manner with few individuals after the construction of the soft release enclosure and augmentation of protection, while other actions are underway”.
The report proposed that six to eight cheetah should be soft released in the enclosure with GPS/Satellite transmitters. “Males would be released first while females remain within the enclosure. This would ensure that males, during their exploratory movements, would not stray very far from the soft release enclosure where females are housed,” said the report.
But the concerns of wildlife conservationists is not just limited to India not being able to provide a conducive environment to cheetah. It also revolves around moving a species from its natural habitat and translocating it to another continent.
“In general, as far as possible, we should not play god,” says Dr Ravi Chellam, a wildlife biologist, CEO of Metastring Foundation and member of Biodiversity Collaborative. “It is true that the grasslands are very neglected parts of the Indian landscape. But India already has resident species present in grasslands that are charismatic enough to do the same job.
“We have a wolf, caracal, great Indian bustard, Bengal florican, chinkara. It is not as if we do not have enough or more species which can do that representation.”
But Dr Jhala says that despite these species being there, the focus on the grasslands is lacking. “The grasslands are dying. There is no money that the government is spending on its rejuvenation. Because there is so much international focus on big cats like cheetah, the government will work towards protecting them and the environment it thrives in.”
Further, he says, the move is in line with IUCN guidelines which recommends the introduction of related sub-species when the endemic sub-species has become extinct from a geographical location.
According to IUCN’s Red List, cheetah population is “vulnerable” and is witnessing a decreasing trend with around 6,600 left in the wild.
“We already played the devil by devastating the ecology and caused the extinction of cheetah which was native. So, by trying to introduce them and attempting to reverse the damage that we have caused to the environment, we are only playing a small benevolent part,” says Dr Jhala.