Cheetahs may not get second time lucky

The plan to introduce African cheetahs to India seems ill-advised and may well backfire

The government’s ‘action plan for introduction of cheetah in India-2021’ evisages to utilise 748 sq kms in the Kuno national Park to sustain 21 cheetahs initially. But there are inconsistencies in the carrying capacity figures of cheetahs in Kuno
The government’s ‘action plan for introduction of cheetah in India-2021’ evisages to utilise 748 sq kms in the Kuno national Park to sustain 21 cheetahs initially. But there are inconsistencies in the carrying capacity figures of cheetahs in Kuno

Dharmendra Khandal

India is all set to import African cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa, sparking concern bordering on outrage among wildlife conservationists. Some reports say the introduction is likely before August 15, Independence Day, which presumably in the government’s calculations will add to the pomp and ceremony of the 75th year celebrations.

The government’s ‘Action plan for introduction of cheetah in India 2021’ talks about utilising 748 sq. km in Kuno National Park to initially sustain 21 cheetahs. Over the next 30-40 years, the Action Plan envisages, this number will go up to 36 cheetahs, as larger swathes (3,200 sq. km) of the Kuno landscape are turned into ‘suitable habitat’ for the cat. (The total area of the Kuno landscape is about 6,800 sq. km).

Curiously, an earlier report (titled ‘Assessing the potential for reintroducing the cheetah in India 2010’) by the same principal authors, affiliated with Wildlife Institute of India (WII), claimed that 27 cheetahs could be sustained in the 347 sq. km expanse of the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary. (Kuno was a sanctuary at the time, half the present-day size of Kuno National Park). The 2010 report claimed 100 cheetahs could survive in a 3,200 sq. km area.

The inconsistencies in the carrying-capacity figures seen in these two reports are glaring, and the authors have offered no explanations.

The cheetah is a delicate big cat. It requires a specific habitat that affords space to safely reproduce, hide and hunt. Also, the cheetahs India is getting from captive breeding facilities are ill-adapted to hunt in the wild. In order to make this programme successful, grasslands have been ‘created’ in the Kuno National Park by felling trees and clearing shrubbery over the past several years.

This is a big hurdle to establishing cheetahs as a species in this country. Most of India’s protected areas were developed in hilly areas with undulating terrain, not suitable for cultivation. They had been largely left undeveloped by humans before they were marked protected areas. It is pertinent, then, to ask how additional cheetah numbers can be sustained. If their numbers are to go up from 21 to 36, will they relocate 169 villages identified in the 3,200 sq. km potential cheetah area in Kuno? That will be a tall order to say the least.

As per the Action Plan, three to four small populations will be developed simultaneously in other reserves to genetically support the main population—and these populations might be shuffled for breeding if the need arises. Periodically, they will also import more cheetahs from Africa.

A fresco painting in Bara Mahal of Kota, Rajasthan, 16th century (Photo: Dharmendra Khandal)

Why this huge push to establish a few small populations of cheetahs in the country? Two reasons have been given: to regain ‘lost glory’ and to restore India’s grassland habitats.

The cheetah was purportedly wiped out in India some 70 years ago. However, all the ‘evidence’ of this extinction is in the form of written historical records, which makes it hard to establish this with any certainty.

The prevalence of captive coursing animals kept by the maharajas and the nomenclatural conflation with leopards (Panthera pardus) makes it difficult to identify and determine with complete accuracy historical records on wild cheetahs in India. It is possible we lost cheetahs even earlier, because within a 250-year span in the history of Rajasthan—the state that would have afforded the most suitable habitat for the species—there is no undisputed record of a wild cheetah.

The second claim is that the introduction of cheetahs will restore our grassland habitats. Ironically, trees and shrubs are being removed to develop a pseudo grassland habitat in the Kuno National Park.

Small patches of grassland in Kuno are actually surrounded by dense forested hills and these hills are full of leopards (as per the Action Plan, nine leopards per 100 km). It will be interesting to see how the cheetah will defend itself from this highly agile, opportunistic and adaptive predator.

The cheetah plan wants to secure 3,200 sq. km against various odds to achieve a population of just 36 animals over 30-40 years. In comparison, the tiger reintroduction programme in Panna Tiger Reserve began with shifting seven animals that multiplied to a population of 70 over 12-13 years in an expanse of approximately 800 sq. km or half the total area (1,578 sq. km) of the Panna Tiger Reserve.

It is pertinent to point out that Kuno was once home to tigers and 6,800 (or even 3,200) sq. km, if secured, can hold more than 350 (or 200) tigers, which is approximately 70 per cent (or 40 per cent) of Madhya Pradesh’s current tiger population. The potential of securing 6,800 (or 3,200) sq. km is easily envisaged if we remember that the total area of tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh is 10,208 sq. km, including buffer areas with villages.

The cheetah programme does allow tigers and lions to share the greater Kuno landscape after the cheetah is well established, but it does not provide a timeline for this.

The Cheetah Action Plan has been authored with great care, and provisions have been made to ensure that even in a worst case scenario, the project cannot technically be deemed a failure. To declare this introduction a ‘success’, all they have to do is ensure the survival of half the introduced population. It will be deemed a failure only if all cheetahs die within a fiveyear period, and even as they keep introducing more cheetahs from Africa. So, holding the experts accountable for the fate of these cheetahs will be hard.

While Kuno National Park was initially developed for Asiatic lions, Gujarat is not comfortable translocating them to other states. Many wonder if the powerful Gujarat lobby simply hijacked the site in the name of the cheetah.

The number of surviving Asiatic cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) is extremely low in their natural areas of occurrence in Iran (the only country where they are found today), and hence the move to introduce the African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus). Being as it is a different subspecies of the cheetah, it will also be more accurate to call this import an ‘introduction’ rather than a ‘reintroduction’.

The reason to claim that it is a ‘reintroduction’ may well be a glaringly off-key legal detail: India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 forbids the introduction of exotic species to India’s wilds, even if they are genetically close to their Indian subspecies. It is also illegal to provide them with wild prey in captivity. But such is the government’s ardour for the cheetah that these illegalities have been brushed aside. Surprised, anyone?

(Dharmendra Khandal has been a conservation biologist with Tiger Watch, a non-profit based in Ranthambore, for the past 20 years)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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