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India plans to bring back extinct cheetahs to its forests

March 11th, 2020
topic:Conservation
by:Shuriah Niazi
located in:India, Namibia
tags:cheetah, environment, India, Namibia, wildlife

The Supreme Court of India's nod last month to bring in African cheetahs from Namibia has given fresh hope to restore the population of the now-extinct big cats in the country.

India once had a thriving population of Asiatic cheetahs. However, their numbers fell dramatically in the colonial era due to hunting. The last of India’s cheetahs vanished about 60 years ago.

Experts have been deliberating the reintroduction of the world’s fastest animal in India for over a decade. In 2010, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII)  — under India's Environment Ministry — and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) had suggested three sites to relocate cheetahs in India. WTI is a leading nature conservation organisation committed to the conservation of wildlife and its habitat.

Supreme Court appoints experts panel

India’s top court recently allowed the government to re-introduce cheetahs in a suitable natural habitat in the country. Giving the green light to a long-pending project, the court permitted the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) to bring the big cats from Namibia. The court has appointed a three-member committee of experts to assist and advise the NTCA in the translocation of cheetahs from Namibia. The court said NTCA will be assisted by the committee of experts who will select the most appropriate location for reintroducing cheetahs and they will monitor how the felines adapt to Indian conditions.

The three-member committee includes Ranjit Singh, former director of the Wildlife Institute of India (WWI), current Director-General of WII Dhananjay Mohan and Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Wildlife in the Indian Ministry of Forest and Environment will be the committee's third member. According to officials, there are many favourable areas where cheetahs can be relocated.

A bench of the Supreme Court comprising of Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices BR Gavai and Surya Kant said that the cheetahs will be released after proper survey and the decision to bring the feline here will be left to the discretion of the NTCA.

Three sites identified for cheetah relocation   
The Central government has identified three locations in the country for possible re-introduction of the African cheetahs. Two of them Kuno-Palpur National Park and Nauradehi Sanctuary are in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, while Shahgarh Landscape in the northern desert state of Rajasthan is the third potential cheetah habitat.

JS Chauhan, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of Madhya Pradesh Wildlife Department, said that suitable habitats with sufficient prey-base have been developed for the big cats at the Kuno and Nauradehi.

The Kuno Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary spreads over an area of 6,800 sq km in Sheopur, Morena and Shivpuri districts of Madhya Pradesh and is considered the most suitable place for the cheetah in the country as the habitat here has been upgraded following plans to introduce the Asiatic lions here.

The Supreme Court had earlier ruled against introducing cheetah in Kuno after Gujarat's legal counsel said that Kuno was being considered for the introduction of the lions. Ironically, Kuno still waits for lions since Gujarat refused to part with its pride.

The Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar district spreads over an area of 1,197 sq km inside a forested landscape of 5,500 sq km. With abundant grassland cover, the site could hold up to 25 big cats. Nauradehi is a suitable area for reintroduction of Cheetahs as its forests are not very dense and so won’t hamper the fast movement of Cheetahs. It has vast grasslands and abundant prey base.

Currently, among the main predators at Kuno and Nauradehi are leopard, Indian wolf, striped hyena, wild dog, Bengal fox, sloth bear, and golden jackal.

The Shahgarh landscape in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan has also been identified as a suitable habitat with the potential to support cheetah populations.

Challenging task

Wildlife experts have welcomed the move to reintroduce cheetahs. However, reintroducing felines in a country having a human population of nearly 1.35 billion is a very challenging task as the country is already grappling with the limited habitat for all species of big cats. Not just big cats, all species of wildlife are facing big challenges. The conflict between wild animals and humans is increasing everywhere.

According to Wildlife Trust of India, the cheetah re-introduction project would help save the grasslands and dry forests and the flora and fauna within, in the same manner, that the tiger helped save its forest and high grassland habitats and the snow leopard is to be the vanguard of the attempt to save the mountain habitats and its fauna.

Cheetahs will be acclimatised to Indian conditions

According to the plan, the animals will be brought from Africa and a breeding population will be acclimatised to Indian conditions in a spacious rehabilitation centre. The reintroduction if realised would serve a wider agenda of conserving endangered grassland and scrub forest habitat in parts of India, which historically constituted cheetah habitat. This would also help in the conservation of endangered grassland fauna including the imperilled great Indian bustard, among others, says WTI.

Aura of Cheetah likely to focus attention on neglected grasslands

According to the WTI, the grasslands are the most productive terrestrial ecosystems but have been over-exploited in India, either for agriculture or as grazing pastures, resulting in severe degradation. The aura of the cheetah would focus attention on these biomes and lead to their better management, which would ultimately also have a positive impact on human welfare and livelihood, wildlife experts say.

The apex court had earlier stayed cheetah relocation, stating that there was no scientific study to show that re-introduction of cheetahs and lions in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary could be successful.

“It has taken so long to get the court to allow the re-introduction of the cheetah,” said MK Ranjitsinh, the head of the court-appointed committee to help NTCA.

“The court was earlier misinformed that the cheetahs and lions cannot co-exist. However, there is no evidence to support this assumption” added Ranjitsinh, the architect of India’s Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.

WII had prepared Cheetah Re-introduction Project

Dehradun based Wildlife Institute of India (WII) had prepared the Cheetah Re-introduction Project in 2012. It was estimated that Rs. 250 million to Rs. 300 million would be needed to build enclosures with huge boundary walls for the introduction and protection of cheetahs at Nauradehi or at any other selected habitat before releasing them in the wild.

The cheetah population currently survives in Iran and the African continent. The number of cheetahs has been affected worldwide due to hunting, smuggling, and depletion of natural habitats. The Asiatic Cheetah survives only in Iran and initially, it was planned to bring them from Iran. But its numbers are so small that Iran refused to part with its big cats. African cheetah is genetically very similar to Asiatic cheetah and so India prepared a plan to bring felines from Namibia.

Article written by:
Shuriah Niazi
Shuriah Niazi
Author
India Namibia
The number of Cheetahs fell dramatically in the colonial era due to hunting. The last of India’s cheetahs vanished about 60 years ago.
India’s top court recently allowed the government to re-introduce cheetahs in suitable natural habitat in the country.
Reintroducing felines in a country having a human population of nearly 1.35 billion is a very challenging task as the country is already grappling with the limited habitat for all species of big cats.