The cheetah or Acinonyx Jubatus, the fastest terresterial animal on earth is about to make a comeback to India later this year. But do the Indians of today know why it vanished from India in the first place?
The cheetah is no stranger to India. The country was once the final point in the arc of its range extending to Iran and Africa. In fact, the very word ‘Cheetah’ is of Sanskrit origin meaning ‘variegated’, ‘adorned’ or ‘painted’.
South Asia’s love affair with the spotted cat reached its apogee in the Middle Ages. Divyabhanusinh, the author of The End of a Trail: The Cheetah in India, told Down To Earth (DTE):
The earliest historical references I find are in classical Greek records of India, from Strabo, about 200 years before the Common Era. In the Mughal Period, cheetahs were used very extensively for hunting. Emperor Akbar had 1,000 cheetahs in his menagerie. Central India, particularly the Gwalior region had cheetahs for a very long time. In fact, various states including Gwalior and Jaipur used to hunt with cheetahs. Jaipur used to obatain cheetahs from Gwalior. That is the area where we are talking about their present reintroduction.
All that ended one day in 1947 when Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh, the ruler of a small princely state in today’s Chhattisgarh shot India’s last 3 surviving cheetahs. The animal was declared officially extinct in the Republic of India in 1952.
The plan to reintroduce the cheetah in India began as soon as it was declared extinct. However, its first solid steps were taken in the 1970s, during negotiations with Iran, then under Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Iran’s cheetahs were Asiatic, like India’s extinct animals.
MK Ranjitsinh, chairperson of the Supreme Court-appointed committee for the reintroduction of the cheetah in India, talked to DTE about this cheetah diplomacy. The plan was to exchange Asiatic lions for Asiatic cheetahs. However, the Emergency interrupted everything. At the same time, the regime of the Shah of Iran fell. The plan thus did not reach fruition, he says.
Another attempt to source Iranian Cheetahs was made in 2009 without success. Iran would not permit even cloning of its Cheetahs.
One September day in 2009, the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh convened a meeting in Gajner, Rajasthan to discuss the issue again. Experts argued in favour of bringing in Cheetahs from southern Africa. They also shortlisted a number of potential sites for cheetah reintroduction.
One of those experts, Laurie Marker, the founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund told DTE that even an almost ideal ecosystem like the Serengeti in Africa witnessed upto 90 per cent mortality of cheetah cubs. India’s experiment could not have results worse than that, she said.
An unusual event in May 2012 put spokes in the wheel when the Supreme Court ordered a stay on the reintroduction project. Senior advocate PS Narasimha, court-appointed advisor and the amicus curiae in the Asiatic lion’s relocation case in the apex court, had filed an application seeking a stay.
But finally, in January 2020, things started moving with the impetus of India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority itself. And in April this year, a South African expert visited four potential sites: Kuno-Palpur, Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary, Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary and Madhav National Park.
The NTCA will be releasing funds to the tune of Rs 1,400 lakhs to the Wildlife Institute of India this month to implement the project.
If everything falls into place this time, Kuno will host 4 big cats: Lions, Tigers, Cheetahs and Leopards. But, can these animals coexist comfortably in the same habitat? This has never occurred anywhere else before.
The cheetah reintroduction will definitely be a boon for wildlife tourism but it may also pose a threat to the inter-species and human-wildlife conflict.