Return of the Cheetah a boon for ecosystem

Cheetah is the only large carnivore that got  wiped out from India, mainly due to over-hunting. The Action Plan highlights the nation’s preparedness in bringing the cheetah back.

About the Action Plan for introduction of Cheetahs in India, Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Bhupender Yadav informed that “Project Cheetah aims to bring back independent India’s only extinct large mammal – the cheetah. As part of the project, 50 cheetahs will be introduced in various National Parks over five years.”

Cheetah happens to be the only large carnivore that got completely wiped out from India, mainly due to over-hunting and habitat loss. The Action Plan highlights the nation’s preparedness in bringing the cheetah back. Conservation of Cheetahs has a very special significance for the national conservation ethic and ethos. The very name ‘Cheetah’ originates from Sanskrit and means ‘the spotted one’.

Besides conserving the big cat, the initiative in itself is a boon to the ecosystem. Cheetahs live in open plains; their habitat is predominantly where their prey live – grasslands, scrub and open forest systems, semi-arid environments and temperatures that tend to be hotter compared to cooler regimes. In saving cheetahs, one would have to save not only its prey-base comprising certain threatened species, but also other endangered species of the grasslands and open forest ecosystems, some of which are on the brink of extinction. It is also observed that among large carnivores, conflict with human interests is lowest for Cheetahs. They are not a threat to humans and do not attack large livestock either.

Genesis of the plan

Discussions to bring the cheetah back to India were initiated in 2009 by the Wildlife Trust of India. Experts from across the world, officials of the Government of India including Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change and representatives of the state governments met and decided to conduct site surveys to explore the reintroduction potential. Former cheetah range states- Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, were prioritized. It is also observed that among large carnivores, conflict with human interests is lowest for Cheetahs. They are not a threat to humans and do not attack large livestock either.

The locally extinct cheetah-subspecies of India is found in Iran and is categorized as critically endangered. An important consideration during such conservation efforts is that the sourcing of animals should not be detrimental for the survival of the source population. Since it is not possible to source the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah from Iran without affecting this sub-species, India will source cheetahs from Southern Africa, which can provide India with substantial numbers of suitable cheetahs for several years.

Cheetahs from Southern Africa have the maximum observed genetic diversity among extant cheetah lineages, an important attribute for a founding population stock. Moreover, the Southern African cheetahs are found to be ancestral to all the other cheetah lineages including those found in Iran. Hence, this was therefore considered ideal for the country’s reintroduction programme.

Sanctuaries recommended

Amongst the 10 surveyed sites of the central Indian states, Kuno Palpur National Park (KNP) in Madhya Pradesh had been rated the highest. This is because of its suitable habitat and adequate prey base. KNP is 748 sq. km. in area, devoid of human settlements, forms part of Sheopur-Shivpuri deciduous open forest landscape and is estimated to have a capacity to sustain 21 cheetahs.

Kuno is probably the only wildlife site in the country where there has been a complete relocation of villages from inside the park. Kuno also offers the prospect of housing four big cats of India – tiger, lion, leopard and cheetah – and allowing them to coexist as in the past.

The other sites recommended for holding and conservation breeding of cheetah in India, in controlled wild conditions are:

Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary (1,197 sq. km, habitat 5,500, Madhya Pradesh

Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary – Bhainsrorgarh Wildlife Sanctuary complex (~2500, Madhya Pradesh

Shahgarh bulge in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan (4,220

Mukundara Tiger Reserve as fenced enclosure (~80, Rajasthan

As expected, this historic moment that coincided with PM’s 72nd birthday had its share of brickbats.  Congress general secretary and in-charge communications, Jairam Ramesh alleged that the “PM hardly ever acknowledges continuity in governance. Cheetah project going back to my visit to Capetown on 25.04.2010 is the latest example,” Ramesh, who was the Environment and Forest minister during 2009-11, said in a tweet. When tigers were first translocated to Panna and Sariska during 2009-11, there were many prophets of doom, Ramesh said, adding that they were proved wrong. “Similar predictions are being made on the Cheetah project. The professionals involved are first-rate and I wish the project the very best!” he said.

The PM himself captured the moment on a camera as the cheetahs scampered about, checking out their new home. Jet-lagged after a 9,000-km overnight flight from Namibia to Gwalior, and then to the Kuno helipad, the cheetahs looked at their new surroundings a bit tentatively at first, but were soon sprinting about. “Decades ago, the age-old link of biodiversity was broken and became extinct, today we have a chance to restore it,” PM Modi said, adding: “Today, the cheetah has returned to the soil of India.”

It’s very rare for a species extinct in one part of the world to be replaced by a lot from another, especially an apex predator. The whole world had its eyes on the world’s first inter-continental large wild carnivore translocation project, a mission that took decades to dream and years to plan and work out.

Cheetahs were officially declared extinct in 1952. The PM went on to say, “Humanity gets very few opportunities to reform the past to create a new future, we’re fortunate to have got that opportunity today. We’re fortunate to have got the opportunity of rebuilding that cycle of bio diversity which was broken decades ago due to cruel hunting of the three last surviving Cheetahs in the country during 1947.”

Finally in the Amrit Kaal of Azaadi (75th year of India’s independence), the country has succeeded in bringing about the Cheetahs’ return and rehabilitation with full energy. But this day is the result of years of efforts by experts along with their counterparts from Namibia and South Africa, a development which doesn’t find much importance, if viewed politically.

The return of Cheetahs again brings home the point that the environment for India doesn’t just signify sustainability and security, but it’s also the basis of sensuality and spirituality for us. Our cultural existence since time immemorial has hinged on conservation of environment and wildlife species. The message of India of the 21st century is that Economy and Ecology aren’t contradictory, but complementary.

According to the Action Plan, the aim of Cheetah translocation is to establish viable cheetah metapopulation in the country that allows the cheetah to perform its functional role as a top predator and provides space for the expansion of the cheetah within its historical range thereby contributing to its global conservation efforts.  Another objective is to use the cheetah as a charismatic flagship and umbrella species to garner resources for restoring open forest and savanna systems that will benefit biodiversity and ecosystem services from these ecosystems. Yet another aim is to enhance India’s capacity to sequester carbon through ecosystem restoration activities in cheetah conservation areas and thereby contribute towards the global climate change mitigation goals.