On September 17, 2022 the history of wildlife conservation in India was rescripted when Prime Minister Narendra Modi released cheetahs into the Kuno National Park, in Madhya Pradesh. Eight African cheetahs, three males and five female, were flown to India from Windhoek, Namibia. It was after 70 years that the big cat returned to India.
The Asiatic cheetah had gone extinct in India about 70 years ago. The Project Cheetah aims at introducing cheetah into the areas of its range where it existed in the past before extinction and to restore grassland ecology.
The opinion among the concerned experts and conservationists with regard to this historic step of intercontinental translocation and release differs, depicting both the shades: success and failure. Both, the sceptic and the optimist as well, will have to wait to see how the coming time unfolds the level of ecological tolerance and the compatibility for both the entities -the introduced species and the host environment. No doubt nature takes its course and the environment responds accordingly- either in favour or otherwise.
The Asiatic cheetah, like other big cats viz., tiger, lion and leopard, roamed in India across a a large territory, mainly in central India. Although all of them bore brunt of the vagaries of environmental and anthropogenic circumstances and depleted to alarming populations, the cheetah could not withstand the pressure. The killing of last three Asiatic cheetahs around 1947, reportedly by Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo, the ruler of then princely state of Koriya, the modern day Chhattisgarh, hammered the last nail in the coffin of cheetah population in India. The cheetah finally extirpated in India and officially declared extinct in 1952.
The central Iran is the only other place, outside India, where a precariously small population of Asiatic cheetah, reportedly less than fifty individuals, exists with the danger of getting pushed to oblivion like its Indian counterpart in near future. The African cheetah presently inhabits parts of Africa in small fragmented populations.
The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), distinguished as the fastest land animal, has evolved to be represented by four sub-species: Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus), Northwest African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki), Southeast African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) and Northeast African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii). The Asiatic cheetah with its population numbering a few individuals is now confined to central Iran while the African cheetah exists in parts of Africa.
The historic range of distribution of cheetah extended from Africa, mainly sub-Saharan, eastward to Middle East and to central India and had an approximate global population of 100000 before the previous century. However, its population continued to dwindle alarmingly to the extent that Asiatic cheetah became extinct in India and the African cheetah plummeted to around 7000 recently, registering a decline of fifty percent only in last four decades. The African cheetah is distributed in small fragmented populations in Africa with 61 percent population in South Africa followed by other countries including Namibia, Chad, Ethiopia, Botswana, Kenya, and Zimbabwe.
In 1972 the Government of India contemplated to reintroduce Asiatic cheetah from Iran to its past historical range in India. The then ruler of Iran consented but the plan could not materialize as the Shah of Iran was deposed. A proposal was mooted under Project Cheetah in 2008 envisaging bringing the cheetahs from Africa for introduction in India. Ultimately in 2020 the Supreme Court cleared the proposal on ‘experimental basis’ after it was halted by it in 2013.
The Kuno National Park, in Madhya Pradesh, was already under assessment as potential release area for the reintroduction of cheetah. It was earlier assessed and prepared for translocation of the Asiatic lion from Gir National Park in Gujarat. During the assessment of viable habitat for the reintroduction of cheetah the Wildlife Institute of India had selected six sites in 2010 and finally zeroed in on Kuno National Park for the release of first batch of the African cheetah.
The sceptics raise their concern about the introduction of African cheetah citing that it never was an indigenous species and the mortality rate of cubs is very high even in its native range. They also doubt the suitability of the ecosystem where the cheetahs are being introduced in citing that grasslands are not as abundant in Kuno as required by African cheetah in savanna conditions. In their opinion the presence of prey base, mainly small ungulate species, as required by the African cheetah is not adequate or sustainable for long term survival of the population. They believe that the presence of predators and competitors like leopards, hyenas and possibility of moving in of tigers into Kuno from Ranthmbore National park will increase the vulnerability of the cheetah. They exhort that our indigenous endangered species like the only population of Asiatic lion in Gir and their long pending translocation, the great Indian bustard, the lesser floricans, the Houbara etc need more attention and resources than African cheetah.
However, the concerned scientists from Wildlife Institute of India, authorities and other conservationists associated with the project maintain that the cheetah action plan has taken care of all the concerns and has been prepared as per the guidelines of IUCN. They assessed that there is sufficient prey base with good density in Kuno National Park which may be adequate even for 20 cheetahs. They also maintain that all the villages within 750 sq.km of Kuno National park already stand relocated and there are no feral dogs in the area. They do not consider cheetah alien to India and believe that cheetah being at the apex of grassland and savanna ecosystem will give impetus to the protection and conservation of other grassland species and also improve the grassland ecosystem. Generating economy through eco-tourism is also attributed to the project. They see very good chances of success of the project and survival of cheetah in India.
Notwithstanding the divided opinion the nation and the global conservationist fraternity hope to see the cheetah with numerous other species in its ecosystem flourish and sustain for a better and healthy natural environment.
(The author, a conservationist and officer from J&K Wildlife Protection Department, is presently Joint Director in J&K Forest Research Institute)