Tuesday, Dec 12, 2023

How Cheetahs Went Extinct From India

How Cheetahs Went Extinct From India

Cave paintings dating back to the Neolithic age in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh make it evident that cheetahs were once found across the country, particularly in central India. They were celebrated by kings and nobles. But the bond between cheetahs and nobility faded soon.

Animal handler and cheetah on the street in Jaipur. (Representative image)
Animal handler and cheetah on the street in Jaipur. (Representative image) Vintage etching circa late 19th century.

The story of the Indian cheetah is a tale of ancient glory, royal hunts, colonial exploitation, and the consequences of human interference on delicate ecosystems. What was once a symbol of grace and speed in India’s rich wildlife heritage, met a tragic fate, leading to its eventual extinction in the country. Despite trying to reintroduce cheetahs to their native land, the initiative appears to have been unsuccessful so far.

"The environment is very unfit for the survival of cheetahs in today's time. Not only did India kill the native cheetahs, but now they are also bringing cheetahs from other countries but are unable to protect them. Disturbing animals and displacing them from their natural habitat cannot bring back the cheetah population. If we couldn't save our native cheetahs, then at least we must not try to make cheetahs from other countries on the verge of extinction," says Nagarjun, who works at the Wildlife and Rescue Centre.

Ancient Legacy and Royal Hunts

A cheetah's roots in India can be traced back to ancient times. Cave paintings dating back to the Neolithic age in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh make it evident that cheetahs were once found across the country, particularly in central India, where they roamed semi-desert areas, scrub jungles, and grasslands. Throughout history, cheetahs had a special place in the hearts of kings and nobles. They were admired for their speed and elegance, making them ideal companions for the nobles during hunts and pastimes. The Mughal rulers, especially Emperor Akbar, known for their grandeur and love of nature, were particularly captivated by the cheetah's skills, fostering a close bond between these graceful predators and the ruling elite.

Kings and nobles admired these swift creatures and sought to domesticate them for hunting expeditions. Miniature paintings from the Mughal era showcase the splendour of these hunts, revealing the Mughal emperors' fascination with cheetahs and their skill in hunting with them. The charm of the cheetah extended beyond the hunt, as they were tamed and domesticated. They were known as loyal companions to their royal masters. Unlike other big cats, cheetahs were never known to pose a threat to humans. 

Colonial Rule And The Bounty On Cheetahs

As time marched on, however, the bond between cheetahs and nobility began to fade. The fortunes of cheetahs took a dark turn during British colonial rule. The colonisers viewed cheetahs as a threat to their livestock and game species and placed bounties on their heads. During colonial times, the administration actively hunted cheetahs and gave rewards to people who captured or killed them. This hunting, along with the loss of their homes due to human settlements and cutting down forests, caused their numbers to decrease rapidly.

The Last Sighting

In the 19th century, the population of cheetahs experienced a steep decline. The population went down from around 10,000 to just a few hundred. The British colonial administration's practice of rewarding people for killing cheetahs between 1870 and 1925 was a major contributor. On average, 1.2 cheetahs were killed each year. By the middle of the 20th century, cheetahs were on the verge of extinction.

In 1947, the last known Asiatic cheetah met its tragic end at the hands of Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya which is now known as Chhattisgarh. With the death of the last cheetah, the once-thriving population was reduced to zero. It was the time when the species was officially declared extinct.

The tragic event went largely unnoticed, and no legal consequences were taken for the one responsible for their extinction. There was no justice for these majestic creatures whose numbers were already dwindling due to a long history of exploitation and neglect.

Human-Caused Extinction

The extinction of the cheetah is a harsh reality of how humans have lost their connection with nature. As societies moved towards progress and development, we started viewing the natural world as a resource to be exploited. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), about 25% of all mammal species are currently at risk of extinction. This is largely due to human activities. The never-ending desire for power, land, and resources has led us to carry destruction wherever we go. Despite global efforts to protect endangered species, human actions often carry more destructive weight than conservation endeavours.

Chandrababu Naidu, a forest guard working in Bannerghatta National Park, expresses, "We haven't learned anything from the loss of cheetahs. Nowadays, in the name of protection and conservation, we keep animals in enclosed places like zoos, parks, and sanctuaries. However, they truly need their natural homes. We must stop destroying forests and set them all free. Only then can every animal have a chance to survive."

Reconnecting With Nature

The well-being of humans is closely connected to the health of the planet and all its living creatures. There is a need to understand and appreciate the delicate balance of life on Earth. This involves safeguarding wildlife habitats, adopting sustainable practices, and fostering empathy for all living beings that share this world with us. 

Venkatesh, an activist working at the Foundation for Ecology and Education Development Trust, asserts that the extinction of cheetahs can be partly attributed to hunting, but global warming and deforestation are now causing other animals to face the risk of extinction. Take, for instance, sparrows – their numbers are also declining rapidly.

The extinction of cheetahs is a tragedy but not the end of the story. The laws, conservation methods, and relocation of cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa bring hope. By working together, the balance can be restored and the magnificent wonders that continue to grace our world can be protected.