Economy & Politics

Monday September 20, 2021

Cheetahs in India

Author: Adit Jain, Editorial Director, IMA India Sept 2021

Cheetahs, back in India

The reintroduction of cheetahs to India promises to be a sensational event and, from my perspective, a most delightful one. Cheetahs have existed in India for thousands of years along with a series of other predators, like lions, tigers, leopards and a variety of smaller cat species such as caracals, jungle cats and fishing cats. Each of these have their own domain, although there are some prey species that overlap across predators. This beautiful feline creature was made extinct in the early 1950s, a result of hunting – the most ridiculous and barbaric of sports. However, its re-introduction has been opposed by several activists on the pretext that it would disturb the ecology. The initial idea was to bring in a small group of Asiatic cheetahs from Iran, of the sort that once lived across the sub-continent, but that never progressed. Iran was willing to send a few in exchange for the Asiatic lion, a proposal that India bluntly refused. Now a related species of the cat is proposed to be introduced from South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.


Naysayers have contended that the African species is different to the one that existed in India previously. But these arguments are dubious. Stephen O’Brian, a scientist from the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity in the United States, explained at a conference that based on genetic studies, the Asiatic cheetah was, in fact, genetically identical to the African one with which it had separated only 5,000 years ago. This was, in evolutionary terms, not enough time for a sub-species level differentiation. Other studies have, however, claimed that the separation took place much earlier and subtle differences had begun to form. In comparison, the Asiatic and African lions separated some 100,000 years ago. The real issue, nevertheless, is that the plains of India hosted cheetahs in the wild, until they were exterminated by the insanity of a few. Tiny genetic differences are a distraction to the basic debate. The impact they would have on the local ecology and whether they would at all be able to settle, is the subject of speculation. Unless you try, you will never know. The facts that win the argument in favour are simple and indisputable – India hosted cheetahs for eternity and deserves to do so again.


Now that the decision about reintroduction has finally been settled, the issue is where? Wildlife experts have shortlisted three regions which have the potential to support cheetah populations. These include the Kuno-Palpur and Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh and Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. Kuno is said to have the capacity to hold populations of four of India's big cats: the Bengal tiger, Indian leopard, Asiatic lion and the cheetah, all four of which have co-existed in the same habitat, historically, for thousands of years. Presently, the park’s main predators include leopards, sloth bears, wolves and striped hyenas. None of these share hunting habits and techniques with the cheetah and consequently, do not compete with it.


Kuno contains grasslands and forest thickets and has a river flowing through it, which divides the area in two roughly equal parts. The 24 villages that previously existed within its boundaries were relocated through the efforts of JS Chauhan, a remarkable forest service officer, when he served as Field Director. Mr Chauhan currently is the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests. The absence of villages eliminates the risk of cheetahs preying on domestic cattle that constitute an easier catch than wild deer and antelopes. The Madhya Pradesh Forest Service, which administers some of India’s leading National Parks – including Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Pench, Satpura, Panna and several lesser known sanctuaries – is well experienced in animal relocation and consequently, has the aptitude to handle this delicate task.


Gandhi Sagar and Mukundara are suitable in terms of their layout and geography but currently do not have prey animals in sufficient numbers that would give cheetahs a fighting chance. In the course of my research on this article, Rajnish Singh, a forest service offer of the Madhya Pradesh cadre, who has actively worked on various animal relocation programmes, explained to me that hundreds of spotted deer are being relocated into Gandhi Sagar with the intent of introducing cheetahs here. However, this would in the second phase, after Kuno.


Cheetahs have been a part of the Indian forest landscape and the space they occupied has been vacant for only a little more than half a century. Technically, they are predators that actively hunt weaker animals and do not, like tigers or leopards, ambush their prey. As cursorial hunters, their strategy is based entirely on speed. Leopards and cheetahs have very different ecological roles which do not conflict with each other. Whereas, leopards, like tigers, live in wooded areas, cheetahs live in open grasslands. They say, there is a time and place for everyone on God’s good earth; in the forests too, there is a role for all predators who have lived together over the centuries. These include various cat species, wild-dogs, hyenas, bears and Asiatic wolves, amongst dozens of smaller predators. Currently, parks like Kuno (and eventually Gandhi Sagar) have an unsustainable population of deer, creating an ecological imbalance. Hopefully, cheetahs will correct this and ensure a sustainable environment both for plant species and mammals.


The relocation attempt of cheetahs that India plans is something that has been successfully undertaken before in other parts of the world. Reintroductions have been carried out in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Rwanda and the Congo, which had lost these cats due to various reasons including conflict, neglect and loss of habitat. Despite sceptics and naysayers, that have delayed this process by over 15 years through legal challenges, the first lot of our feline cats will arrive in Kuno by the year end. It is then that the real challenge will begin. If even half of them survive past a year, the mission should be considered successful. If they give birth, then we should all be ecstatic, for an important component in the predator chain, missing for decades, would be restored. That would simply be the most wonderful thing. And this time, with wildlife protection laws in place, they would be here for good.