Tuesday, Aug 16, 2022

Why Introducing African Cheetahs To India Is A ‘Vanity Project’

The initiative to get African cheetahs is neither science-based nor a national conservation priority, which would significantly distract from higher priority conservation issues like the much-delayed lion translocation.

A cheetah and her cubs. I Credits: Kalyan Varma
A cheetah and her cubs. I Credits: Kalyan Varma

Introducing cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) from southern Africa into India will distract our attention from other pressing and critical conservation priorities. The decision to release them in Kuno National Park that has been readied for translocating Asiatic lions (Panthera leo leo) over the past two decades runs counter to the April 2013 Supreme Court order to translocate lions within six months. 

The 2013 order also mentioned: “The decision taken by MoEF [Ministry of Environment and Forest] for introduction of African cheetahs first to Kuno and then Asiatic lion, is arbitrary, an illegal and clear violation of the statutory requirements provided under the Wildlife Protection Act. The order of MoEF to introduce African cheetahs into Kuno cannot stand in the eye of Law and the same is quashed.” 

The plan to get Southern African cheetahs to India has been in the making for over a decade. Prior to the current efforts, Government of India had initiated discussions with Iran in the 1970s. The plan was for India to give a few Asiatic lions that were extinct in Iran, in exchange for wild Asiatic cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) that have been extinct in India since 1952. Tumultuous political events that led to the ousting of the Shah of Iran in 1979 put an end to this attempt at large cat diplomacy.

In 2009, the interest in introducing the cheetah in India was revived and explorations began into bringing African cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa. A consultative meeting was held in Gajner, Rajasthan, on September 9-10, 2009. It was attended by scientists, managers and conservationists from India, South Africa, Namibia, and other international experts. In this meeting, the decision was taken to survey several sites in western and central India to determine their suitability for introducing cheetahs. 

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Based on the field surveys, a report was published in 2010, which stated that cheetahs could potentially be introduced at Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, Shahgarh Landscape in Jaisalmer, and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. This report stated that all three sites required preparation and resource investments to commence an introduction programme. Additionally, a long-term commitment of political will, resources, and personnel were required from the central and state governments for the successful implementation of this project.

Kuno river with a hill in the backgroun I Credits: Shantanu Sharma
Kuno river with a hill in the backgroun I Credits: Shantanu Sharma

Introducing cheetahs in Kuno was mentioned by the Learned Counsel of the state government of Gujarat to the Forest Bench of the Supreme Court of India in 2012 during the hearings related to the Lion Translocation matter. Gujarat was trying to make the point that the Indian government should first introduce cheetahs in Kuno, grant the species the time to get established before implementing lion translocation; all of which would have taken several years if not a decade and more. Clearly, this was an attempt to further stall the lion translocation to establish an additional free-ranging population to the one at Gir, which has been a conservation priority for India since the early 1950s. The Forest Bench more than saw through the argument of Gujarat and quashed the plans to introduce the cheetahs in Kuno.

It is natural for us to have thought that with its 2013 order the Supreme Court had once and for all laid to rest the issue. We were mistaken. There has been no progress with the lion translocation as per the apex court order. On the contrary, the National Tiger Conservation Authority filed an appeal against the quashed plan of introducing African cheetahs to India.

The Supreme Court in January 2020 allowed the experimental introduction of cheetahs after further field research and under carefully controlled conditions. This allowed the government to move forward with the Cheetah Introduction project, while continuing to neglect lion translocation. This despite lions continuing to die from diseases, including the deadly canine distemper virus that could potentially render wild Asiatic lions extinct.

The officially stated goal of this project is: “Establish viable cheetah meta-population in India that allows the cheetah to perform its functional role as a top predator and provides space for the expansion of the cheetah within its historical range thereby contributing to its global conservation efforts.” 

However, the Action Plan released in January 2022 to bring the cheetah to India does not do justice to this goal. Only Kuno is mentioned as the site for the introduction and the estimated population that would survive in Kuno National Park and the larger Kuno landscape is only 36 cheetahs. It is unlikely that the introduced cheetah population would be self-sustaining. 

Tragically, this would end up being akin to a glorified safari park after having consumed a disproportionate quantity of resources. The officially projected population after 15 years is only a few dozen cheetahs at a couple of sites that will require intensive management, which would prove expensive. Such a small number of cats at very few sites cannot meet the stated goal of performing its ecological function at any significant scale.

Further, another objective of this project is: “To use the cheetah as a charismatic flagship and umbrella species to garner resources for restoring open forest and Savanna systems that will benefit biodiversity and ecosystem services from these ecosystems.” 

The cheetah introduction plan has never figured in our National Wildlife Action Plan including the current plan for the period 2017-2031, while the translocation of lions has been a national priority since the 1950s. India has several charismatic and highly endangered species, eg, Caracal, Great Indian Bustard, Wolf, Lesser Florican and Blackbuck, which are denizens of open forest, Savanna and grassland systems. We have been failing badly in conserving these species and their habitats. The resources to be expended, estimated at Rs 40 crores for the first five years, for introducing African cheetahs could be better spent on our existing native species. 

This initiative to get African cheetahs is neither science-based nor a national conservation priority. Unfortunately, this will significantly distract from higher priority conservation issues like the much-delayed lion translocation. 

For above reasons, I cannot find a diplomatic way to state it other than calling the cheetah introduction a vanity project. This is also reflected in the great hurry to get cheetahs from Africa. The cats were supposed to initially come from Namibia and a team from India went on a preparatory visit there earlier this year, but negotiations with Namibia seem to have stalled if not broken down. Since sourcing the cats from South Africa is a result of no-show from Namibia, I wonder about the level of preparation including the identification of suitable cheetahs from South Africa, that too by August, which is barely six to eight weeks away. 

This is extremely worrying and not indicative of a conservation approach that is science-based, transparent, inclusive or thoughtful. It does not behove India, especially given our conservation track record in reviving and conserving populations of various species. I sincerely hope better sense prevails.  

(Ravi Chellam, CEO, Metastring Foundation & Coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative)