Kuno’s caged cheetahs and exiled Adivasis

For the hundreds of displaced forest dwellers, finding jobs, schools, firewood and even drinking water is a daily challenge

One of the 12 cheetahs from South Africa in an enclosure at Kuno National Park in February 2023 (photo: National Herald archives)
One of the 12 cheetahs from South Africa in an enclosure at Kuno National Park in February 2023 (photo: National Herald archives)

Priti David

When Gutti Samanya, a Sahariya Adivasi was enlisted as a ‘cheetah mitra’ (friend of the cheetah) by the Madhya Pradesh forest department, he was told to “inform the forest rangers if you see the cats”.

It seemed an important enough job, even though not paid. After all, the African cheetahs were coming to Kuno national park from over 8,000 km away, over sea and land, in cargo and military planes and helicopters. The Indian government was spending undisclosed amounts of foreign exchange on their travel, and emptying the coffers for conservation.

Cheetah mitras would keep the cheetahs safe from poachers, and also save them from irate villagers into whose homes they might stray. So, the roughly 400-500 mitras, all forest dwellers, farmers and daily wagers, spread across small hamlets and villages bordering Kuno-Palpur National Park (KNP), readied for national service.

But since the cheetahs landed, they have spent a lot of time in caged spaces, and fences have gone up in the forests of Kuno, both to make sure they stay in, and others stay out. “We are not allowed in. There are new gates at Sesaipura and Bagcha,” says Sirinivas Adivasi, who also signed up to be a cheetah mitra.

Gutti and thousands of other Sahariya Adivasis and Dalits once lived in the forests of Kuno with leopards and other wild animals. In June 2023, he was among the last residents of the park’s Bagcha village who were moved out 40 km away, for the high-profile cheetah project. Now, eight months after losing his home to the cats, he’s a bit miffed at why he has to be locked out of the forest. “How can I be a cheetah mitra if I live so far away from the forest?” he asks.

For any Adivasi to even lay eyes on a cheetah has been impossible given the tight security and secrecy surrounding them. Both Gutti and Sirinivas say they have “only seen a cheetah in a video” circulated by the forest department.

The first batch of eight cheetahs landed at Kuno in September 2022, followed by a second batch of 12 in 2023; seven of the imported ones have died, as have three of the now 10 born on Indian soil — a total of 10 deaths so far.

Nothing to worry about, says the ‘Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India’, as the criteria for the projects’ success needs a 50 per cent survival rate. But this is for free-ranging cheetahs, while Kuno’s cats have been held in bomas (enclosures) ranging from 50 x 50 m to 0.5 x 1.5 sq km holds to allow them to quarantine, acclimatise, recover from any ill health and possibly hunt — all constructed at an estimated cost of Rs 15 crore. They have not spent much time ranging in the wild, living, breeding and hunting despite that being a key aim of the project.

Instead, cheetahs are hunting in the current camps. “They cannot establish territories and start breeding. None of the South African female cheetahs have had sufficient time to interact with males. Six of the seven cubs born at Kuno have the same father, Pavan,” says Dr Adrian Tordiffe, a veterinarian from South Africa who was a key member of Project Cheetah. He says he was later sidelined and finally dropped “for speaking out”.

Shut out of their forest, the Adivasis have been living in temporary dwellings (photo: Priti David)
Shut out of their forest, the Adivasis have been living in temporary dwellings (photo: Priti David)
Priti David/PARI

Kuno, once a small sanctuary of 350 sq km, was doubled in size to become a national park so that wild animals could hunt in the open. Since 1999, over 16,000 Adivasi and Dalit people have been evicted from here for big cats to have a run of the place.

Hum bahar hain, cheetah andar (we are out, the cheetahs are inside)” exclaims Mangilal Adivasi, a Sahariya tribal from Bagcha. The 31-year-old newly-displaced young man is desperately trying to get his new fields and home in Chakbamoolya in Sheopur tehsil up and running.

Sahariya Adivasis like Gutti, Sirinivas and Mangilal are ranked as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) in Madhya Pradesh, highly dependent on the forest for income from resin, firewood, fruits, roots and herbs. “In Bagcha (from where they were displaced), we had access to the forest. I have left behind over 1,500 chir gond (resin) trees over which my family has had rights for generations,” says Mangilal. Now he and his village are 30–35 km from their trees; fenced out, they cannot even enter their forest.

“We were told we would get Rs 15 lakh [as compensation], but we only got Rs 3 lakh to build a house, Rs 75,000 to buy food and Rs 20,000 for seeds and fertilisers,” says Magilal. The rest, the bulk of over Rs 12 lakh, has gone toward the nine bigha (roughly three acres) of land, electricity, roads, water and sanitation, he has been told by a displacement committee set up by the forest department.

Ballu Adivasi is the patel (headman) of the newly established Bagcha village. (The displaced people want the old name to continue.) In the fading light of a winter evening, he looks around at the construction debris, tents of black tarpaulin and bits of plastic fluttering in the cold wind. Half-finished brick and cement houses stretch into the distance, running parallel to a busy highway into Sheopur town. “We don’t have money to complete our homes or establish our fields with channels and slopes,” he says.

Someone very high up wanted the project to appear successful (photo: National Herald archives)
Someone very high up wanted the project to appear successful (photo: National Herald archives)

“What you see is not a harvest we planted. We had to give the land on batai (sharecropping) to other people. We could not start a crop with the money they gave us,” says Ballu, who also points out that their land does not compare to the well-ploughed and levelled land of the host village of upper caste people.

When PARI had interviewed Ballu in 2022, he pointed out that others who had been displaced were still waiting for the state to fulfil its promises made 20 years ago. “We don’t want to be caught in that situation,” he had said then. But that is exactly where he and the others are now.

“When they wanted us to leave Kuno, then they would fatafat (quickly) give in to our demands. Now if you ask, they turn away,” says Gutti Samanya, his cheetah mitra status notwithstanding.

With the last of the Adivasis out, the national park — all 748 sq km of it — is now exclusively for the cheetahs, a rare privilege that baffles Indian conservationists. They say it’s the Gangetic dolphin, great Indian bustard, sea turtles, Asiatic lion, Tibetan antelope and other native species that are “highly threatened and priority species” as listed in India’s Wildlife Action Plan 2017-2031. Not cheetahs.

Getting cheetahs to Kuno has required the Indian government to run circles around legal and diplomatic obstacles. A 2013 Supreme Court order had ‘quashed’ the plan to bring African cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) to replace the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) which had gone extinct in India.

But in January 2020, on a plea filed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the SC said cheetahs could come on an experimental basis. It also said the NTCA alone could not decide its viability and it should be guided by an expert committee.

The high-level Project Cheetah Steering Committee of roughly 10 members was constituted. But scientist Tordiffe, who was on it, says, “I was never invited [to a meeting].” PARI spoke to many experts involved in the project who say their counsel has been routinely disregarded and “people on top have no idea, but will not let us function independently either”. What was clear though was that someone very high up wanted the project to appear successful and any ‘negative’ news was frowned upon.

Back in Bagcha, Mangilal says the cats are not on his mind — his concerns are food and firewood for his family of six. “We are not going to be able to survive on farming alone,” he says firmly. “This land is good for paddy, but to prepare the land is expensive and we don’t have money.”

Courtesy: People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). The full version of this piece can be read here

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