The complexities of introducing African cheetahs to India
- The cheetah, which became extinct in India after Independence, is all set to return with the Union Government launching an action plan in Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh.
- According to the plan, about 50 of these big cats will be introduced in the next five years, from the African savannas, home to cheetahs, an endangered species.
Distribution of cheetahs in India
- Historically, Asiatic cheetahs had a very wide distribution in India.
- There are authentic reports of their occurrence from as far north as Punjab to Tirunelveli district in southern Tamil Nadu, from Gujarat and Rajasthan in the west to Bengal in the east.
- Most of the records are from a belt extending from Gujarat passing through Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha.
- There is also a cluster of reports from southern Maharashtra extending to parts of Karnataka, Telangana, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
- The distribution range of the cheetah was wide and spread all over the subcontinent. They occurred in substantial numbers.
- The cheetah’s habitat was also diverse, favoring the more open habitats: scrub forests, dry grasslands, savannahs and other arid and semi-arid open habitats.
What caused the extinction of cheetahs in India?
- The major reasons for the extinction of the Asiatic cheetah in India:
- Reduced fecundity and high infant mortality in the wild
- Inability to breed in captivity
- Sport hunting and
- Bounty killings
- It is reported that the Mughal Emperor Akbar had kept 1,000 cheetahs in his menagerie and collected as many as 9,000 cats during his half century reign from 1556 to 1605.
- The cheetah numbers were fast depleting by the end of the 18th century even though their prey base and habitat survived till much later.
- It is recorded that the last cheetahs were shot in India in 1947, but there are credible reports of sightings of the cat till about 1967.
Conservation objectives for their re-introduction
- Based on the available evidence it is difficult to conclude that the decision to introduce the African cheetah in India is based on science.
- Science is being used as a legitimizing tool for what seems to be a politically influenced conservation goal.
- This also in turn sidelines conservation priorities, an order of the Supreme Court, socio-economic constraints and academic rigor.
- The issue calls for an open and informed debate.
What is the officially stated goal?
- To establish viable cheetah meta-population in India that allows the cheetah to perform its functional role as a top predator
- To provide space for the expansion of the cheetah within its historical range thereby contributing to its global conservation efforts
Issues in re-introduction
- Experts find it difficult whether the African cheetahs would find the sanctuary a favorable climate as far as the abundance of prey is concerned.
- The habitat of cheetahs needed to support a genetically viable population.
Current status of this project and chances of it succeeding
- According to the Government, Kuno is ready to receive the cheetahs.
- It is being reported that Namibia wants India’s support for lifting the CITES ban on commercial trade of wildlife products, including ivory.
- The cheetahs are to be provided by the Cheetah Conservation Fund, an NGO, and not the Namibian government.
- Three to five cheetahs are expected to be part of the first group of cats and these are expected to arrive as early as May 2022 and be released in the wild by mid-August.
- Given all the challenges, especially the lack of extensive areas with sufficient density of suitable prey, it is very unlikely that African cheetahs would ever establish themselves in India as a truly wild and self-perpetuating population.
- A likely unfortunate consequence of this initiative will be the diversion of scarce conservation resources, distraction from the real conservation priorities and a further delay in the translocation of lions to Kuno.