Cheetahs, the fastest animal on land, are returning to India after more than 70 years. But their return has been both celebrated and criticised by the scientific community.
When was the last time you heard about cheetahs in India? Our grandmothers and grandfathers tell stories of tigers and lions, and we gasp in awe when we see leopards, panthers and other wild animals in pictures in their natural environment. But cheetahs? They are always absent from thought and discussion.
These wild beasts are set to make a return… kind of.
The Centre recently announced that they have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Namibia to transport the animals. The big cats will be transported to Madhya Pradesh by August.
Madhya Pradesh takes pride in being part of the MoU between India-Namibia on wildlife conservation and sustainable biodiversity utilisation.— Shivraj Singh Chouhan (@ChouhanShivraj) July 20, 2022
The Cheetah re-introduction project will restore historic evolutionary balance and contribute to global conservation efforts. https://t.co/SOXLpTyXRG
"Completing 75 glorious years of Independence with restoring the fastest terrestrial flagship species, the cheetah, in India, will rekindle the ecological dynamics of the landscape," Union Minister for Environment, Bhupender Yadav, tweeted.
Happy to share that India has signed a historic MoU with Namibia to promote Wildlife Conservation and Sustainable Biodiversity Utilization. The MoU seeks to promote conservation and restoration of cheetah in their former range from which the species went extinct. pic.twitter.com/MNVyw8S2eQ— Bhupender Yadav (@byadavbjp) July 20, 2022
A similar MoU exists with South Africa, and is expected to be completed in the next few weeks. These wild animals are being brought under the 'Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India'.
Kuno Palpur National Park (KNP): KNP was selected among 10 other places to reintroduce the big cats into the wild in India. KNP was identified as the best-suited destination. The national park is 748 sq km in area. Human settlements, villages and cultivated land were relocated while building the national park.
Is KNP an ideal home for African cheetahs? Originally, the KNP was supposed to be home to the Asiatic lions found in the Gir forests of Gujarat. However, this plan was changed in lieu of bringing cheetahs back to the wild.
Amongst the ten surveyed sites in five central Indian States, Kuno Palpur National Park (KNP) in Madhya Pradesh was rated high on the priority list for considering the introduction of the cheetah because of its suitable habitat and adequate prey base. pic.twitter.com/TwcLf3AGju— MoEF&CC (@moefcc) July 20, 2022
The African cheetahs are known to be highly adaptable animals. In southern Africa, they live in deserts, grasslands, dune forests, woodlands and mountains. They live in places where temperatures dip -15C (Northern Cape) and also where the temperature soars to 45C (Malawi). Adjusting to KNP's habitat is unlikely to be a challenge for them. However, food, space and competition have been cited by experts as an issue.
The Indian Express, quoting Amritanshu Singh, the Sub Divisional Officer of Kuno National Park's wildlife division, reported that there is enough game for the cheetahs.
"We have plenty of food for them. We have 15,000 to 20,000 spotted deer, for instance in Kuno for them," Singh said.
As for the competition, the animals will first go through a 'soft-release' where they will be monitored within a 500-hectare, electrically-fenced area. Leopards from this area will also be moved.
The pros and the cons: The biggest reason for introducing the cheetahs back to India is to "rekindle the ecological dynamics of the landscape" in the words of the Union Minister of Environment.
However, Ravi Chellam, conservation scientist and wildlife biologist, says that the introduction plan is flawed in an article for Outlook. He argues that the money being spent on the introduction of cheetahs could have been used for the conservation and welfare of already available species in India like the Asiatic lions, caracals, great Indian bustards etc. He says that these animals have been ignored despite them requiring more care and investment.
"This despite lions continuing to die from diseases, including the deadly canine distemper virus that could potentially render wild Asiatic lions extinct," he says in the article. Chellam calls it a 'vanity project' by the Government of India.
The Asiatic lions were supposed to be shifted from Gujarat to KNP according to Supreme Court orders from 2013. However, that has been put on the back burner for now.
Introduction or reintroduction: In 2013, the Supreme Court of India said the GoI's idea is not about "reintroduction" but the "introduction" of cheetahs. The difference is due to the fact that India was home to Asiatic cheetahs, but the GoI is bringing in African cheetahs.
There are slight differences between the two types of cheetahs. The African cheetah is darker in colour, and has wider spots and freckles on the face and body, while the Asiatic cheetahs are light yellow in colour with smaller spots and no freckles. Asiatic cheetahs also have hair on the belly.
Asiatic cheetahs are now only found in Iran. That too, there are only 12 of these remaining in the world.
History of cheetahs in India: During the early 20th century, cheetahs roamed the planet from the Africas, the Middle East to Afghanistan and India. In India, they were spread across the sub-continent from northern Punjab, Rajasthan to southern Tamil Nadu.
Emperor Akbar reportedly had 1,000 cheetahs to help him during hunting of blackbucks and other animals.
There was a time when Cheetah were used for coercing and hunting of black bucks. They got extinct from India long back in 1950s.— Ramesh Pandey (@rameshpandeyifs) July 20, 2022
Now Cheetah is in news for its come back to India in Central Indian landscape.
PC: Shared #Cheetah pic.twitter.com/rjoN0vgd5w
However, these remarkably athletic and agile big cats were driven to extinction in the country due to various man-made factors. It was the first ever animal to be declared extinct in the nation.
In 1948, the last three male cheetahs were reported to have been shot down by Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Surguja (now in Chhattisgarh).
Will the plan be successful? There is always a risk in reintroducing animals to a region. But, in 2017, four cheetahs were reintroduced in southern Africa's Malawi. And now the cat population there has increased to 24.
So, if you ever encounter a cheetah, do you know what to do? Maintain eye contact, back away slowly and most importantly, DO NOT RUN. This piece of information is likely going to be useful in the future.