Let's find the grasslands first, not the cheetah

The Supreme Court’s nod to reintroduce cheetahs in India raises more questions than hope

Salil Panchal
Updated: Feb 12, 2020 10:41:39 AM UTC

Life is not a template and neither is mine. Like several who have worked as journalists, I am a generalist in my over two decade experience across print, global news wires and dotcom firms. But there has been one underlying theme in each phase; life gave me the chance to observe and tell a story -- from early days tracking a securities scam to terror attacks and some of India's most significant court trials. Besides writing, I have jumped fences to become an entrepreneur, as an investment advisor -- and also taught the finer aspects of business journalism to young minds. At Forbes India, I also keep an eye on some of its proprietary specials like the Rich list, GenNext and Celebrity lists. An alumnus of Xavier Institute of Communications and H.R College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai, I have worked for organisations such as Agence France-Presse, Business Standard, The Financial Express and The Times of India prior to this.

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Image: Shutterstock

If any wildlife enthusiast is starting to visualise the possibility of spotting the sleek cheetah roaming free—once again—in the dry mosaic of scrub or dry grasslands in India, think again. It is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

And this is not because the government or state governments and the wildlife machinery in India are not keen or able.

The Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus), a subspecies of the African cheetah, was found in India till British colonial rule. It was believed to have been last sighted in what is now Chhattisgarh in 1951 but was officially declared extinct in India a year later.

Since being wiped out, there were numerous plans, suggestions and studies to try to reintroduce this spotted cat in India—but none materialised. The last was in 2010, when the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had cleared a plan to import cheetahs, based on an advisory paper from conservationist Dr. MK Ranjitsinh and Dr. Y V Jhala, a scientist with Wildlife Institute of India.

Last month, India’s Supreme Court gave the nod to the Centre to introduce the African cheetah to a suitable habitat in India.

Search for habitats first
But a decade has gone and India will need to revive its feasibility studies to determine whether the potential areas and habitat for re-allocation of the feline remain or have deteriorated since.

In 2009-10, two protected areas in Madhya Pradesh, Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary and Kuno National Park and the Shahgarh bulge landscape in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, had been identified as potentially suitable for the reintroduction of the cheetah.

“Feasibility of reintroductions and new sites which have come to notice since then need to be studied. The next step is to decide if there is a possibility to upgrade them to potential sites and in what timeframe,” says MK Ranjitsinh who framed India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and also initiated Project Snow Leopard in 2009.

Ranjitsinh – who is confident that the cheetah can be reintroduced in India -- maintains that the Kuno region appeared to be the “most suitable” at that point of time for the introduction of the cheetah. He now seeks a meeting with Prakash Javadekar, the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

Cheetahs in Africa are found in a wide range of habitats and ecoregions, ranging from dry forest and thick scrub through to grassland and hyper-arid deserts. There are an estimated just 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild and their future remains uncertain across their range, having vanished from 91 percent of their historic range, says US-based cat conservation group Panthera.

We’re not well prepared
With concerns being raised over the suitable habitat in India, conservationist Anish Andheria, president of the Wildlife Conservation Trust believes that India is just “not prepared”. “The habitat at Kuno is a not savannah—here is a mix of scrub and woodland…this is right for the Asiatic lion but not a cheetah.”

But there is one huge positive which might work if the cheetah were to be translocated to a sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. This state has been known for several translocations and reintroductions in recent years—the Gaur, hard-ground Swamp (Barasingha) deer, Axis deer, Blackbuck to sanctuaries within Madhya Pradesh or to neighbouring states. All have been with some degree of success.

Madhya Pradesh state has a strong track record to show—after all, it protects the most number of tigers in the country—an estimated 526—according to the Status of Tigers in India 2018 report. If cheetahs comes to this state it will be a huge feather in its cap.

But the translocation of big cats has been mixed. Three attempts have been made to extend the Asiatic lions range beyond Gir (in Gujarat) and all have failed. The relocation of tigers to Panna in 2009 has been successful but Sariska’s attempt to reintroduce them has been a struggle.

The critical part would be to ensure that there is enough prey for cheetahs and also how it copes with other predators such as wolves, jackals, leopards or dholes (the Indian wild dog). An option that can be considered then is to conduct trial runs and introduce a smaller population of cheetahs into private game reserves.

Andheria has a different take on high profile reintroductions; he believes India should focus on what it has, including high-profile mammals such as elephants, tigers, rhinos or wolves. He believes the translocation will be “very challenging” as cheetahs need inviolate space to roam in, which is missing at this stage. “I will start the process now and after multiple examination of the process, impact on prey and people relocations…. and introduce them years later, in 2035.”

Cheetahs, we must understand, were not just hunted down in India; their grassland habitats in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh dwindled over the past 70 years and were either replaced by agricultural land or encroached upon by people over the past few decades.

These concerns will amplify if support from the Centre or the state does not come. India has been focussed on the need for better sanitation and drinking water for all but has an adhoc way of dealing with environmental or wildlife-centric issues. Without policy and peoples’ support, translocation of cheetahs will just not work. I hope that we do get to see this regal cat roaming India’s grasslands again but it will need more than just good intentions or the need for a sightseers’ tag.

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