Exciting to think of India as having cheetahs again: Dr Laurie Marker, founder, Cheetah Conservation Fund

CCF has offered to assist the committee of conservation experts appointed by the Supreme Court on a pilot programme to introduce the African cheetah to the landscape of India

Exciting to think of India as having cheetahs again: Dr Laurie Marker, founder, Cheetah Conservation Fund

Seema Sharma

The cheetah occurs mostly in eastern and southern Africa. The largest population (nearly 4,000 individuals) is sparsely distributed over Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia. Another population, spread in Kenya and Tanzania, comprises 1,000 individuals. All other cheetahs occur in small, fragmented groups (mostly less than 100 individuals in each) throughout the range.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) sought permission for the introduction of the African cheetah from Namibia last year as the Supreme Court of India is monitoring the government’s ambitious project. After Iran’s refusal, Africa is the only hope left for India to explore Cheetah translocation.

Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) has offered to assist the committee of conservation experts appointed by the Supreme Court on a pilot programme to introduce the African cheetah to the landscape of India. While India had long been part of the Asiatic cheetah’s historic range, the critically endangered sub-species, Acinonyx jubatus venaticus, went locally extinct in the early 1950s.

CCF is the global leader in research and conservation of cheetahs and dedicated to saving the cheetah in the wild. CCF is an international non-profit organisation headquartered in Namibia, with a base in Somaliland and operations in the United States, Canada, Australia, Italy, Belgium and the United Kingdom. CCF has fundraising partner organizations in Germany, The Netherlands and Kenya. Founded in 1990, CCF is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2020, making it the longest running and most successful cheetah conservation organisation.

Dr Laurie Marker, CCF’s founder and executive director shared her views about Cheetah relocation to India from Africa, in an exclusive interview with Seema Sharma.

Please let me know what do you think of India being the second home to African cheetah?

It would be exciting to think of India as having cheetahs again and hope it provides for long-term cheetah survival. Introduction will be a long process, but we know that our colleagues in India are up for the challenge.

Will Cheetah adapt to the ecosystem in India?

To save cheetahs from extinction, we need to create more permanent places for them on Earth. India has areas of grassland and forest habitat, which may still be appropriate for this species. The government has a progressive mindset, and they are open to exploring the concept of introducing cheetah to encourage healthy biodiversity. They are looking at the big picture, considering the large landscape approach. We think they are setting a marvellous precedent with the decision of translocation ofthe species.

In general, cheetahs are very adaptable and live in a variety of ecosystems. So they can be relocated and if carefully done, in stages, they can easily adapt to their new surroundings.

Which habitat in India will be most appropriate for Cheetah relocation in India and why?

There are several habitats that have been presented for relocation, in both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The main criteria are having enough small and medium sized game species, as well as having reduced potential for conflict with large predators, and reduced potential for human wildlife/livestock conflict. The decision-making process of where the species will be introduced will be guided by field assessments and available scientific data.

What is required to be done before, during and after Cheetah introduction?

Most of the planning will be done on paper before the animals are on the ground. During the period of assessments of the release sites, relationships with the communities surrounding the reserve will be developed, to learn about how they live and the issues most important to them. It is important to ensure there is enough prey before the cheetahs are introduced. Once it is determined the habitat is ready to bring the cats in, we will closely monitor them to make sure they are learning their way around and finding enough food and water. If not, we then assist them until they are self-sufficient. This means we will have teams on the ground in charge of monitoring the cats and working closely with the communities on an on-going basis. Avoiding and mitigating conflict through careful and consistent monitoring will be the key to success. 

What are the common mistakes which need to be avoided?

One of the mistakes we see that leads to failure is a lack of support after placing the animals back on the landscape. This introduction process is slow, and is best when done gradually, in stages. To release cheetahs and not monitor them closely, and to do this without the support of the local communities, are common mistakes. The individual animals also need to be carefully chosen for this project. Picking the wrong ones could lead to failure, and it would have nothing to do with the merits of the location, the program, or the local communities.

Will your organisation, CCF, consider sharing some of the Cheetah with India or any sort of cooperation or expertise in this regard?

I began discussing this introduction with the Indian government in 2009. Along with other members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Cat Specialist Group, Veterinary Specialist Group and Reintroduction Specialist Group, I travelled to India toattend a series of meetings on the utilisation of the southern Africansub species, Acinonyx jubatus jubatus, for this initiative. In 2011, I returned to conduct site visits with members of the India regional wildlife and forestry departments to determine habitat suitability, prey base and the presence of natural predators.

Cheetahs in Namibia belong to the government, and CCF works with the Namibian government to help manage the population. To secure appropriate animals from Namibia, the government of India would need to work closely with Namibian government officials. CCF will be happy to assist with these communications.

Will the process of sharing cheetah and resources with the CCF requires a lot of modalities and funds?

The interest being shown by the international community in this project is very strong. While there are certainly costs involved, through hard work and careful planning, the project can be feasible and worth the investment.

CCF has offered to communicate with governments from African countries that may provide cheetahs and assist in identifying those to be included in the pilot programme. Movement of cheetah would be coordinated with the governments and through CITES. Several options are already under assessment.

Has Cheetah Conservation Foundation given away some Cheetah to any other country in the past and how has been the experience?

CCF is the longest-running program for cheetahs in the world. This year, we celebrate our 30th anniversary. In addition, I have been working in Africa for an additional decade, so our combined impact for cheetahs dates back to the 1970’s. CCF has assisted in helping bring the species back to areas in South Africa where local populations have been greatly reduced. We’ve also done the same for Zambia, going back many years now. The experience went very well, and we are pleased with the results we’ve achieved in South Africa. In addition, CCF has helped re-establish cheetahs in the south of Namibia where populations were locally extinct for more than 60 years. These programs continue to be successful because of careful planning and long-term monitoring.

(Seema Sharma is a Chandigarh-based independent journalist who writes environmental, social and gender issues)

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