Seven decades after cheetahs went extinct in India because of loss of habitat and prey, 20 of them were brought to India last year in two batches from Namibia and South Africa, under an ambitious reintroduction project. They were released in Kuno National Park, a sanctuary sprawling over 290 square miles in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself let the first batch go into the quarantine enclosures, calling it a “historic” moment that will “boost” the country’s wildlife diversity. (Images of Modi photographing the cheetahs were widely circulated. Hours later, addressing the nation, he said the government would deliver “at the speed of a cheetah.”)
Long before India’s independence, when a cluster of princely states ruled over the region, cheetahs were popular pets among kings and the elite, who imported them from Africa and used them to hunt. There are several archival paintings and photographs of noblemen posing with the big cats. In independent India, some of the pioneers of the cheetah reintroduction project were the scions of these erstwhile royal families. India has been making attempts to reintroduce the spotted cat for many decades, though it was only in 2020 that the country’s supreme court allowed the animal’s import, albeit in small numbers.
This $11 million project, the world’s first intercontinental relocation of a large wild carnivore, suffered a setback earlier this year when nine cheetahs — five adults, one sub-adult and three cubs born in March — passed away. The most recent death took place today and the authorities are conducting the postmortem to determine the cause. Two earlier deaths happened in July because of an infection triggered by the reaction of their radio collars to the humid and wet monsoon weather. As part of a prevention plan, six free-ranging cheetahs were brought back to their enclosures and the radio collars removed. Some of them had small lesions but two had severe infections, which are now being treated. The causes of the earlier deaths varied from chronic renal failure and acute neuromuscular symptoms to violent interactions with fellow cheetahs during mating.
While births and deaths alone do not define the success or failure of such a project, say wildlife experts — cheetah cubs have a very high mortality rate (in Africa, only 5% of them survive to adulthood) — the recent deaths have nonetheless raised concerns about the conservation project and the adaptability of the cheetahs in India once again.
The Cheetah Action Plan claims that Kuno will be able to accommodate up to 21 cheetahs in about 15 years and 36 cheetahs in about 30 to 40 years. Yet wildlife experts say the national park lacks both the vast habitat and wild prey needed to sustain a significant cheetah population.
“In the best of habitats in Africa, cheetahs exist in a density of less than 1 per 39 square miles. The spatial ecology of the cheetahs and its lowly position in the pecking order of large cats does not permit it to exist in higher densities,” said the Indian conservationist Ravi Chellam. “In that small area, plus a habitat which is not a typical grassland habitat, the density [of prey] will be low, so you can at best have seven animals,” said Anish Andheria, president of the Wildlife Conservation Trust. The high density could lead the cheetahs to engage in conflict with humans, be attacked by feral dogs or succumb to starvation.
They are not the only ones raising issues with the plan. Conservationists had been criticizing the project even before the cheetahs were brought to India last November. A video that went viral last year featured three cheetahs feeding on a Thomson’s gazelle at the Barafu Gorge in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Watching them was Valmik Thapar, one of India’s most respected wildlife experts and conservationists, who said that “every government officer in India … needs to come here for training, including retired bureaucrats who pass fanciful ideas of reintroducing cheetahs.” He added that “India doesn’t have the prey, doesn’t have the habitat. Cheetahs will end up being killed by feral dogs. We’re in a mess with other forms of wildlife, but we’re into multimillion-dollar fashions of importing African cheetahs in areas where it’s not viable. They’re not going to survive.” Despite these concerns, the Indian government went ahead and brought African cheetahs to India.
The world’s fastest land animal, capable of reaching speeds of 75 mph, the cheetah is currently classified as “vulnerable” globally. More than 100,000 cheetahs were estimated to have been living in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia a century ago, yet today the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species estimates the number of African cheetahs at between 6,500 and 7,000, while there are fewer than 50 Asiatic cheetahs, found only in Iran.
Cheetahs were last recorded in India in 1948 and were declared extinct four years later. Thapar told New Lines that if one looks at the historical records in India for the past three centuries, no place in India had even 30 cheetahs breeding in any region.
“What we had were pet cheetahs,” Thapar said. “Maharajas, rajas, jagirs and the elite were importing them in the 20th century till 1916 from Africa and using them to hunt. I’ve records of thousands of paintings of rajas and maharajas [kings] hunting with cheetahs.” In fact, paintings of rajas hunting with cheetahs far outnumbered the actual cheetahs in India.
Hence, leaders of the cheetah project, who belong to erstwhile royal families — including M.K. Ranjitsinh Jhala, India’s first wildlife director; his relative Yadvendradev Vikramsinh Jhala, the former dean of the Wildlife Institute of India; and Divyabhanusinh Chavda, a leading expert on the Asiatic cheetah — are often criticized for turning “nostalgia into a national passion project.”
The reintroduction efforts date to the 1970s, when India tried to trade cheetahs for Asiatic lions with Iran but the project foundered due to political instability in both countries. New proposals were made by the Indian government in 2009, but the supreme court did not allow it then. Not until early 2020 did the court reverse its decision and allow it on an experimental basis.
Yadvendradev, who worked for the cheetah project for over a decade, agreed that India lacks the area for a self-sustaining cheetah population and says the team was aware of this from the beginning.
“The action plan specified that we need to have three to five different populations and manage them as a metapopulation (when members of the same species are spatially separated in different regions but are still interconnected because of genetic exchange),” he said. “But the issue is that other sites need to be prepared.” The selected sites include Nauradehi and Gandhi Sagar sanctuaries (both in Madhya Pradesh) and Mukundra Hills Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. The site in Rajasthan is ready, said Jhala, but the central government has not approved of the move, since the state is governed by the Indian National Congress, known colloquially as the Congress Party and opposed to Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Even members of the supreme court questioned the central government earlier in May after noticing this reluctance.
“Why don’t you look for a suitable place in Rajasthan?” two justices asked. “Merely because Rajasthan is ruled by an opposition party does not mean you will not consider it.”
The cheetah project has received more attention than other conservation projects, given the personal interest of Modi in it. It was on his birthday that he released the first batch of cheetahs in Kuno. Soon afterward, he remarked that there was a time when pigeons were released in India but now cheetahs are. He was making a gibe at India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Congress Party, who used to release the birds on his birthday every year as “a symbol of peace.” Modi has also portrayed the return of the cheetah as a reflection of the “five vows” he had announced on India’s Independence Day last year to “revive its past glory and shed its colonial past.”
BJP leaders have also spoken about how this project emboldens Modi’s brand image. But Ghazala Shahabuddin, a professor of environmental studies at Ashoka University, who has studied cheetahs, agreed that the project was motivated more by political symbolism and lacked rigorous scientific study. “Reintroduction of a large carnivore in any site where locals have no knowledge or memory of interaction with them necessitates a sensitive and careful process of adjustment and learning. The reintroduction of beavers in the U.K., for instance, was undertaken only after over 10 years of consultation and participatory planning with the landholders who were likely to be affected, apart from other stakeholders.”
Meanwhile, conservationists say that introducing African cheetahs should not have been a “priority” for India, as they were not even mentioned in the National Wildlife Action Plan for 2017-2031. The initiative is distracting attention and resources from critically endangered habitats and native species, such as the great Indian bustard, Asiatic lion, Lesser florican, caracal and chousingha, Chellam said.
Moreover, moving Asiatic lions, who have been overcrowding Gujarat’s Gir National Park, to Kuno should have been a higher priority, according to Chellam. The overpopulation of lions has been causing human-animal conflict and epidemics because of inbreeding. Kuno was originally prepared for them. But the Gujarat government has not allowed the transfer, as it doesn’t want to part with an animal that is considered a status symbol, driving tourism in the state.
In the meantime, as concerns about cheetah deaths increase in India, the political tug-of-war continues to be played over the big cat. Hence, what will become of the project remains to be seen.
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