African cheetahs
African cheetahs

African carnivore in Indian wilderness

Wildlife conservationists and activists are concerned about sustaining 8 African cheetahs brought from Namibia and introduced to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park. But it’s too soon to predict the Cheetah Project’s fallibility, claim scientists. Here’s why…

CHENNAI: It has been over two months since eight African cheetahs were introduced in India, but the discussions, debates and arguments over the topic are far from over.

On one hand, the concerns of wildlife conservationists are finding a stronghold in the media. On the other, the Union government is elated about the cheetahs making their first kill at the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh recently.

In 1952, India declared cheetahs extinct due to coursing, bounty killing and relocation from the wild into captivity. But, since its extinction, several parties in power have put in their share of efforts in bringing them back to India. The Congress party took pride in approving the proposal for the ‘Cheetah Project’ in 2008-09. And currently, the BJP government is gloating on successfully following it through.

Insufficient habitat

However, it’s important to note that the Kuno National Park was originally meant to relocate some of the endangered Asiatic lions from Gir National Park, Gujarat, as per Supreme Court order in April 2013. But cheetahs landed Kuno on priority — further pushing the relocation of Gir lions by at least 15 years.

And, interestingly, the National Wildlife Action Plan (NWAP) for 2017-2031 has no mention of cheetahs, despite the plan of bringing them to India.

Ravi Chellam, wildlife biologist and coordinator of Biodiversity Collaborative, Bengaluru, says, “Though the NWAP did not mention the introduction of African cheetahs into Indian wilderness, the government has prioritised it over India’s endangered species like Asiatic lion and Great Indian Bustard. Additionally, cheetahs require extensive habitats with sufficient prey to thrive. Currently, India does not have such extensive tracts of suitable habitat, at least 5,000 sq km in area, for the cheetahs to establish a self-sustaining population.”

He adds that historically, the presence of Asiatic cheetahs has been recorded in Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu (Tirunelveli).

“Though reliable historical records establish the presence of Asiatic cheetahs across much of India in the past, currently India does not have the required extent of suitable habitats for the cats introduced from Africa. I’m afraid this initiative would become an expensive mistake at the cost of other high priority conservation issues that India needs to urgently attend to,” avers Ravi.

Different priorities

Alphonse Roy, a wildlife photographer and cinematographer, concurs with Ravi, and accuses the Union government of getting their priorities wrong.

“At present, India approximately has less than 2% of land under forest cover. There are existing issues of wildlife protection, forest conservation and rights of forest dwellers. All these are being side-lined for an ambitious project,” he opines.

According to experts, India has lost 2 lakh km of grassland in the last 100 years, as the government perceives it as wasteland, thereby allowing encroachments to take over. Habitats typically used by cheetahs, black bucks, Indian Gazelle, Great Indian bustard, jackals and hyenas have been compromised. And the count of these wilds is sporadic living in smaller grasslands in few States.

Cheetah Project’s action plan

As cheetahs are the only large carnivore that became extinct after Independence, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had set an action plan for the introduction of African cheetahs.

The goal is to establish a metapopulation, which will enable the wild animal to perform as top predators, while also providing space for cheetahs to procreate and grow within its historical range, thus contributing to the conservation efforts.

scientist of the Cheetah Project and dean of Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun Yadvendradev Jhala, explains, “It’s an ambitious project. However, India has the economic and scientific ability to restore its lost natural and cultural heritage. And the project has been well researched for it. It’ll be a success if the programme follows the action plan, which is based on the science of conservation biology according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines.”

Should Gir lions be relocated to Kuno instead of introducing cheetahs? “That’s for the government to decide. However, Kuno is ready for either or both these carnivores if introduced in a scientific manner,” he says.

Jhala insists that introduction of cheetahs is a project in restoration ecology. “Without habitat, we cannot have prey and without prey we cannot have cheetahs. So, a lot of restoration of identified sites is required before cheetahs can be released at any of the other sites. States like Rajasthan and Gujarat hold potential to accommodate cheetahs,” explains the scientist.

Now what?

Shekar Dattatri, a wildlife filmmaker and conservationist, noted that introducing a few cheetahs does not qualify as a come-back but efforts must be made to make sure they adapt and multiply in the landscape without intensive intervention by wildlife managers.

“Despite the dearth of grassland at present, if sincere efforts are made to create and protect vast tracts of habitat for future introductions of the cheetah, it will certainly benefit many other grassland species greatly. So, let’s first focus on restoring the grasslands and their prey species before thinking of more cheetah reintroductions,” recommends Dattatri.

Subsequently, Anish Andheria, president, Wildlife Conservation Trust, Mumbai, spoke about what can be done next. “It’s prudent we try to resurrect populations of several other grassland species that have dwindled due to loss of habitat. Also, it’s not every day that a Prime Minister takes personal interest in bringing a wild species into the country and releasing it in the wild. Hence, the onus of establishing a stable population of the cheetah falls on the government,” he says.

Andheria suggests the government allocate at least 2,000 sq km of grassland habitat in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat each to accommodate cheetahs.

“Moving the existing human population from prospective cheetah habitats will be a challenge. If strategic steps are taken, local communities can co-exist with this small-sized cat and benefit through tourism. The probability of human-wildlife conflict in case of cheetahs is much less compared to other carnivores such as tigers, lions and leopards,” explains Anish.

Though the cheetahs are currently in the country after more than 70 years, it’s too soon to naysay the ambitious project implemented by the Modi government.

The goal is to establish a metapopulation, which will enable the wild animal to perform as top predator, while also providing space for cheetahs to procreate and grow within its historical range, thus contributing to conservation efforts

To establish breeding populations in safe habitats across its historical range

To use cheetah as an umbrella species to garner resources for restoring open forest, savanna systems, benefitting biodiversity

To use this as an opportunity for eco-development and eco-tourism to enhance local communities

To manage conflicts by cheetah or other wildlife with local communities through compensation, awareness to win community support

To enhance a country’s capacity to sequester carbon through ecosystem restoration activities and thereby contribute towards the global climate change mitigation goals

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