Cheetah reintroduction: A vanity project that one hopes will succeed

Whether the plan will succeed or it will be money down the drain, only time will tell. One can only wish the beautiful and graceful animal the best of luck in making a successful comeback in its erstwhile homeland.

As across India, the cases of man-animal conflict increase on a daily basis and we hear of leopards, elephants, pythons, deer, monitor lizards et al, straying into human habitations as their own habitats shrink due to relentless encroachment by an ever-growing human population, the country is gearing up to welcome yet another big cat species, the cheetah, in August, this year.

India, which already has 5 of the 8 big cats, has been hankering to bring the fastest animal in the world to its shores, as a matter of national pride. I say national pride because the cheetah once graced the grasslands of India with its beauty and speed. Unfortunately, the animal couldn’t outrun human capacity for cruelty and bloodlust. In the end, relentless hunting by emperors and maharajas led to its extinction in its homeland. In fact, the last one to put a bullet in the proverbial coffin of this graceful big cat was Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya, in Chattisgarh, (which was a part of Madhya Pradesh then). A ruthless killer of innocent animals, which also included 1,150 tigers, he shot the last three known male cheetahs of the same litter in just one day, in 1947.

In 1952, the cheetah was officially declared extinct in India and soon talk began of bringing it back home by importing it from countries where it still survives. The underlying logic was that if it could thrive in the olden days, a reintroduced species could thrive in the country once again.

In fact, so great was the enthusiasm to bring the cheetah back that the Hyderabad-based Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species suggested cloning the animal, much on the lines of Dolly the sheep. Sadly, Iran, the only Asian country with an Asiatic cheetah population, refused to give India a male and female cheetah or even any sperm, eggs or tissue for reasons best known to it.  Some say that they wanted an Asiatic lion in exchange and India refused, but one is not sure of what the truth is.

After years and years of debates for and against the project, then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh formalised a plan in 2009 to reintroduce the cheetah. Again India approached Iran but it refused to part with its cheetahs because of the tiny population it had and because it already had a very meager population of female cheetahs crucial for the survival of the species. So, in the end, India turned to Africa for help but in 2012 the Indian Supreme Court blocked the move due to worries over introducing an alien species.

Then, suddenly, in January 2020 the apex court responded positively to a petition filed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority and allowed the introduction of African cheetahs into India on an experimental basis.

However, one wonders if those who have been fighting to bring the world’s fastest animal back to India stopped to think if we can actually sustain it now. After all, the sparsely-populated India with large swathes of forests and grasslands does not exist anymore, and this has led to so much human-animal conflict already.

According to a 2021 report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), “human-animal conflict is one of the main threats to the long-term survival of some of the world’s most iconic species.” The report highlights that on an average, world wildlife populations have fallen 68 per cent since 1970 and globally, conflict-related killings affect more than 75 per cent of the world’s wild cat species.

Coming back to India, the Union Ministry of Environment’s data reveals that over 500 elephants were killed between 2014-2015 and 2018-2019, primarily as a result of man-animal conflict. And, roughly about 200 leopards are killed by poachers every year, say data compiled by Government agencies and conservationists. For the unofficial leopard population of India, which has been put at 10,000, this is not good news. And the real number could be much higher given the high incidence of leopard-human conflict due to habitat loss.

So, shouldn’t these numbers be ringing alarm bells for us? After all, the cheetah is known to travel across areas up to 1,000 sq km in a year. Imagine the scope for man-big cat conflict in such a situation!

However, the die is cast and the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh is gearing up to receive eight cheetahs from Namibia as part of a soft launch of the mega project to bring the feline back. Kuno was chosen for this Rs 300 crore project as it has huge swathes of grasslands that a cheetah needs to build up speed for hunting without having to worry about trees or other obstacles coming in its way. The plan is to keep the cheetahs in seven compartments in a 600 hectare enclosure. Later, 12 more cheetahs will be brought in.

So one is forced to think, what is the point of bringing the cheetahs in and keeping them fenced in? Because cheetahs are notoriously poor breeders in captivity and even in the wild, left on their own the death rate of litters is very high. In fact, researchers in Africa have found that many mothers are unable to ensure the survival of even one litter, forget about multiple litters. So, all in all, it is a fragile animal.

Plus, even if we were to go with the logic that they would be kept fenced in and not allowed to venture out for their own safety, then they would always be dependent on human intervention and translocation to ensure genetic viability and long-term survival of the species in the country.

If media reports are to be believed a senior forest officer in Madhya Pradesh has admitted on condition of anonymity that, “In the cheetah’s case we will create founder populations with the knowledge that they will never become naturally viable.”

So how much human intervention and money will have to be pumped by an impoverished country like ours into a vanity project? Won’t we be better off spending this money in conserving other species on the brink of extinction and settling and involving communities in the conservation programmes so that humans and animals have a better chance of surviving with each other?

There are those who argue that bringing the cheetah back is the best way to protect threatened drylands. However, even if they manage to survive and breed and the programme is a big success and we are able to release them in the wild eventually, the fact remains that cheetahs will not live in all types of grasslands of the country. It’s utopian and impractical to expect one species to be the panacea for the conservation of all the grasslands in India.

As of now, the Government’s action plan is to keep the founder population of the cheetah confined to the reserve’s 600 hectares and spend crores doing it. In truth, the idea of having 6 out of 8 big cats in the country might be tempting but it is not enough to justify the time and the money being invested in it. As things stand, the ‘Tiger State’ of Madhya Pradesh has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of tiger deaths in the country, with 27 of the 74 mortalities that took place till July 15 being recorded there.

On the other hand, all cynicism aside, one must give the Government full marks for trying to restore some of the lost glory back and  Kuno-Palpur will soon have the distinction of being the only reserve in the world to host four major big cats, the tiger, lion, leopard and the cheetah.

Whether the reintroduction plan will succeed or it will be money down the drain, only time will tell. One can only wish the beautiful and graceful animal the best of luck in making a successful comeback in its erstwhile homeland. After all, our own wildlife experience will become richer for it.