Explained: Will African cheetahs prosper in India?
Some say the presence of leopards in Kuno National Park could pose a problem for the big cats, while others point to reports of camera traps being removed and remain wary of poaching. But authorities say these lines of thinking miss the big picture
The reintroduction of eight African cheetahs in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park on 17 September, the birthday of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has sparked much joy for many.
India in July signed a pact with Namibia for the re-introduction of cheetahs.
Eight cheetahs — five females and four males — departed from Namibia’s capital Windhoek on 16 September and reached the Jaipur airport on the morning of 17 September.
The animals were then flown to their new home — Kuno — in helicopters before being released into quarantine enclosures by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself.
But others are wondering – will the cheetahs imported from Namibia, the only large carnivore declared completely extinct in India in 1952, mainly due to their use for coursing, sport hunting, over-hunting and habitat loss – survive reintroduction and perhaps even thrive?
Let’s take a closer look at what experts say:
The view, overall, is mixed with some anticipating few problems but remaining optimistic, while others call the plan premature.
Yadvendradev Jhala, dean of the Wildlife Institute of India told National Geographic, “The cheetah is a magnificent animal, it’s a big magnet for ecotourism.”
“If you bring in cheetah, the government will put funds into rehabilitating and rewilding these systems, and all the biodiversity will thrive.”
Writing in The Economic Times, Union minister Bhupender Yadav said the reintroduction of cheetah into the wild is a step towards correcting an ecological wrong and fulfilling Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mission LiFe.
“We have been able to preserve several critical species and their ecosystems, including tigers, lions, Asiatic elephants, gharials and the one-horned rhinoceros, despite our surging population and developmental needs. With Project Tiger, Project Lion and Project Elephant, India has, over the last few years, also been able to increase the populations of these critically important species,” Yadav wrote.
He added that the tiger has served as a flagship and umbrella species of forest systems, and that the cheetah will fill the void for open forests, savannah and grasslands.
“The reintroduction of the cheetah is an ambitious step towards building a sustainable planet because reintroducing a top predator restores the historic evolutionary balance which helps trigger a cascading impact on restoration of their habitat and conservation of the prey base,” he further wrote.
The added that cheetah has been the evolutionary natural selection force that led to the adaptation of high-speed in species such as antelopes and gazelles and that its return will ensure protection of its prey base which includes threatened species and the open forest ecosystem, which too in some parts is on the verge of extinction.
“Project Cheetah will bring in resources to restore neglected habitats that in turn will conserve their biodiversity, harness their ecosystem services and their ability to sequester carbon to their maximum potential,” he wrote.
He added that the reintroduction will help boost livelihood of locals and help improve living conditions through ecotourism.
‘Putting cart before horse’
But some are far more sceptical.
“I’m not against the project, I’m against this very tunnel vision thing of just bringing cheetahs and dumping them in the middle of India where there are 360 people per square kilometer,” Ullas Karanth, emeritus director for the non-profit Center for Wildlife Studies and a specialist in large carnivores, told National Geographic.
“It’s putting the cart before the horse.”
“There’s not any chance for free-ranging cheetah populations now,” Arjun Gopalaswamy, an independent conservation scientist who has conducted research on big cats in Africa and India told the outlet.
He pointed out that cheetahs in India “perished for a reason,”— human pressure— which has only gotten worse in the 70 years since the species disappeared.
“So the first question is, Why is this attempt even being made?”
Jhala, however, argued that this line of thinking misses the bigger picture.
“It’s a restoration and rewilding project for the planet,” Jhala said. “I don’t see anything that can be a contradiction to such a noble goal.”
A potential leopard problem
The presence of leopards could also throw a spanner in the works.
As per Down To Earth, there are nine leopards per 100 square kilometres in Kuno.
Leopards are known to attack adult cheetahs while spotted hyenas kill cheetah cubs.
Down To Earth quoted Vincent van der Merwe, manager of Cheetah Metapopulation Project at The Metapopulation Initiative in South Africa, as saying that the leopard density in Kuno was ‘particularly high.’
As per the piece, the major threat comes from predators and humans. Leopards rarely kill adult cheetahs, but van der Merwe did anticipate ‘some losses’.
“To be honest, we do not know how cheetahs will interact with wolves and sloth bears, but we do not anticipate substantial cheetah mortality to these species. Striped hyenas (distinct from the spotted hyena) will not kill adult cheetahs, but they are likely to chase them off their kills and potentially kill their young,” he added.
Jhala told Down To Earth he anticipated some deaths due to leopard-cheetah conflict but that has already been factored in.
“…It is very likely that at some point after the release, the two big cats will interact with each other and there may be attacks and deaths too. Cheetahs may kill leopards, leopards may kill cheetahs too. But this is how nature works. However, since there are no lions or tigers in Kuno, we feel that we have a fairly good chance that the project will succeed,” Jhala added.
He expressed confidence that cheetahs would be able to escape leopard attacks given that they are ‘masters at escape’ and blessed with good eyesight, hearing and speed.
To van der Merwe, this attempt is simply the reality of wildlife conservation today.
“Long gone are the wide-open spaces for wildlife to roam freely,” he told National Geographic, adding that intensive management is the only solution for maintaining large predators.
“I believe that these first reintroductions into India have the potential to open doors for cheetah-conservation efforts, to create considerably more safe space for the species,” he says.
“Of course, there is a very real risk of failure, but I feel it’s worth the risk.”
Case of missing cameras
The missing cameras in KNP have also caused concern.
“The camera traps were destroyed by locals as they trespass into the buffer zone to collect firewood and minor forest produce and want to destroy the evidence of being inside the protected area,” JS Chouhan, principal chief conservator of forests of Madhya Pradesh, told DTE.
This comes after three locals poached a leopard near KNP.
However, Chouhan said the leopard that was poached was far away from the protected area and all the three accused were caught and all parts of the leopard were recovered.
“We don’t think poaching is a threat here. Locals only destroy the cameras to delete evidence of being in the protected area. This happens in other national parks as well,” he added.
Road to extinction in India
Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Korea, Madhya Pradesh is believed to have killed the last three cheetahs in the country in 1947. In 1952, the Indian government officially declared the cheetah extinct in the country.
The growl of the cheetah once echoed across the country except the high mountains, coastal areas and the northeast.
Experts say the word “cheetah” originates from the Sanskrit word “chitraka”, meaning “the spotted one”. In Bhopal and Gandhinagar, cave paintings dating back to the Neolithic age depict the cheetah.
According to “The End of a Trail – The Cheetah in India”, a book written by Divyabhanusinh, the former vice-president of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Mughal emperor Akbar, who reigned from 1556 to 1605, had 1,000 cheetahs. The animals were used for hunting blackbucks and gazelles.
Akbar’s son Jahangir is said to have caught more than 400 antelopes by cheetah coursing in the pargana of Pala, Divyabhanusinh notes.
The capture of cheetahs for hunting and the difficulty to breed the animals in captivity led to a decline in their population.
According to Divyabhanusinh, the British in India had little interest in cheetah coursing, though they did sometimes shoot and spear the animals sitting on horses.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, the Indian cheetah population had dipped to a few hundreds and princes began to import African animals for coursing — around 200 were imported between 1918 and 1945.
After the withdrawal of the British and the integration of the princely states with independent India, the sport died out as did the Indian cheetah.
This isn’t the first time India has attempted to reintroduce the cheetah.
At the first wildlife board meeting in independent India in 1952, the government had “called for assigning special priority for the protection of the cheetah in central India” and a “bold experimentation to preserve the cheetah” was suggested.
Subsequently, negotiations commenced with the Shah of Iran in the 1970s for bringing the Asiatic cheetah to India in exchange for Asiatic lions. Keeping in view the small Asiatic cheetah population of Iran and the genetic similarity between the Iranian and the African cheetah, it was decided to use the latter for introduction in India.
Attempts to bring cheetahs to the country were revived once more in 2009.
Ten sites were surveyed between 2010 and 2012. The Kuno National Park (KNP) in Madhya Pradesh was considered ready for receiving cheetahs with the least management interventions since a lot of investments were made in this protected area for reintroducing Asiatic lions, which is also an endangered species.
With inputs from agencies
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