"Rise above politics": SC urges Centre to shift Kuno cheetahs to Rajasthan
Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati told the SC that the task force is considering transferring some of the cheetahs to other national parks in MP
The Supreme Court on Thursday expressed serious concern over the death in less than two months of three cheetahs translocated from South Africa and Namibia to Kuno National Park (KNP) of Madhya Pradesh. The apex court asked the Centre to rise above politics and consider shifting them to Rajasthan.
A bench of justices BR Gavai and Sanjay Karol told the Centre that from experts' reports and articles in the media, it appears that the KNP is not sufficient for such a large number of cheetahs and suggested the Union government consider shifting them to other sanctuaries.
"Three deaths in less than two months is a matter of serious concern," the bench said. "Why don't you look for [a] suitable place in Rajasthan? Merely because Rajasthan is ruled by [the] Opposition party does not mean you will not consider it."
While the bench seemed to suggest the decisions were being politically mediated, if not motivated, Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the Centre, said the task force is investigating all possible aspects, including shifting them to other sanctuaries.
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However, Bhati added that one cheetah has given birth to four cubs, which shows that they are acclimatising well in Kuno.
Justice Gavai, who heads the green bench of the apex court, said environmental issues concern him very much and it is a subject close to his heart.
Bhati said the death of the cheetahs was not an "unusual" thing and the government was ready to file an additional affidavit with details of the deaths uncovered from the investigation.
The bench said it did not doubt the government's intent, but given the reports and expert comments, the Centre ought to try at least one more habitat for them.
"The cheetahs were brought subsequent to [the] orders of this court," the bench noted. "It appears Kuno is not sufficient for them. Therefore consider transferring them to other sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan, wherever it [is] suitable." the bench said, urging the government to take cheetah experts' views into account.
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On March 27, a female cheetah named Sasha (from Namibia) died of a kidney infection; on April 23, Uday (S Africa) died due to cardio-pulmonary failure; and on May 9, another South African female cheetah named Daksha, died following a violent interaction with a male during a mating attempt.
"We came to know that the cheetah which died due to kidney related ailment was suffering from the problem before being brought to India. Question is how was that female cheetah cleared to be brought to India, if the feline was suffering from ailment," the bench asked.
Noting that it was not casting any aspersions on the government but expressing concern over the deaths, the bench added, "You are bringing the cheetahs from abroad, it's a good thing. But they need to be protected. They need to be given suitable habitat. Why don't you explore for [a] more suitable habitat than Kuno?"
Continuing, Justice Gavai told Bhati, "Don't bring party politics into this issue. Consider all the available habitats, whatever is suitable for them. I will be glad if cheetahs are brought to Maharashtra."
Bhati replied that Rajasthan's Mukundara National Park is ready and the task force is also considering transferring some of them to other national parks in Madhya Pradesh.
"There are no cheetah experts in India as cheetahs went extinct from the country in 1947–48. Since then our officials have been to South Africa, Namibia and undergone specialised training on cheetah management", Bhati said, adding that if the court was considering the views of cheetah experts, then it should hear all of them and not one or two who have a particular kind of opinion.
The bench asked the expert committee constituted by the Supreme Court to give its suggestions to the national task force on cheetahs in the next 15 days, and posted the matter for further hearing after the summer vacation.
The Supreme Court's direction came while hearing an application filed by the Centre, asking the court to allow it was no longer necessary and mandatory for the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) to continue taking the guidance and advice of the expert committee appointed by the court through its order of 28 January 2020.
The top court had then said that the three-member committee would guide the NTCA in the introduction of African cheetahs into India.
On March 28, a day after the first cheetah death in Kuno, the apex court sought the opinion of the experts in the cheetah task force.
The Centre, in its application said that according to the action plan for cheetah introduction in India, 8–14 big cats are required to be brought in annually from African countries for the next five years at least. A memorandum of understanding in this regard has been signed by the government of India with Namibia and South Africa, in the interest of cheetah conservation.
The Centre said that following the signing of the MOU, eight cheetahs were transported from Namibia to India on 17 September 2022 and released into quarantine enclosures in Kuno.
As per the MoU with South Africa, 12 cheetahs—seven males and five females—were translocated from South Africa to KNP on 18 February 2023.
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