Return of the Cheetah: But Where Will it Roam?

A grand central government plan to introduce African cheetahs into India more than seven decades after the Asiatic cheetah went extinct here raises many pivotal questions

By Prerna Singh Bindra

On 28th January 2020, India’s Supreme Court gave a go-ahead to the central government’s ambitious plan to introduce African cheetahs into India’s wilderness.

This idea isn’t new; the proposal has been around since the 1970s. The Indian government first tried to import cheetahs from Iran, which has the only surviving population of the Asiatic cheetah. It then tried to procure Asiatic cheetah semen, with a grand plan to clone the animal. But Iran’s cheetah population is precariously low, at less than 40, widespread, with none in captivity, and it refused to oblige. India then turned to Africa, the issue gaining momentum in the UPA-II regime under then environment minister Jairam Ramesh in 2009. He pushed, with his characteristic enthusiasm, the project to repopulate “the only large mammal to have gone extinct in India.”

The last confirmed record of the cheetah in India dates back to the year we gained independence, 1947. That’s when three cheetahs, all males, were gunned down in Koriya in present-day Guru Ghasidas National Park in Chhattisgarh, by Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo, notorious for his gory bag of 1,150-odd tigers. There were unconfirmed sightings and shootings thereafter and in 1952, the cheetah was officially declared extinct from India. Its disappearance was attributed to hunting, capture for royal menageries such as that of Emperor Akbar who is believed to have had 9,000 during his reign in the 16th century, and the destruction of its habitat.

In 2020, the stage is set for the “return of the cheetah”, though the court stresses it’s an introduction, since the African cheetah is a new species. But there are some vital questions we need to ask before we lay out the red carpet.

(Left) In a painting from Akbarnama, Akbar is seen riding a horse and hunting alongside cheetahs (circa 1602). It has been reproduced with permission of the Trustees of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; scanned by AshLin from pg 16 of Treasures of Natural History (2005) eds A. S. Kothari & B. F. Chhapgar, Bombay Natural History Society and Oxford University Press, Mumbai. Photo: Painter at the Court of Akbar [Public domain]
(Right) Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo was an infamous hunter. In 1948, he killed the last three cheetahs in India, in Surguja State, Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Private Secretary to Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo [Public domain]
The cheetah is the fastest mammal on land and, lives and hunts in vast grasslands. It can reach a speed of over 100km/hr in 3 seconds. Cover photo: slowmotiongli/Shutterstock

Where are the cheetahs going to come from? The answer is hazy as of now. Back in 2010-11, one possibility was to source them from the Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) or other captive facilities in South Africa. Individuals reared in captivity, or kept in captive conditions often become human imprinted. Similarly, a soft-release (months, if not years, of captivity before being let off into the wild) is fraught with the same problem of imprinting. Rearing carnivores like leopards and tigers in captivity and then releasing them is problematic, as was seen in the case of lions raised by the Adamsons (of Born Free fame), and many cases thereafter. And as also witnessed when hand-reared leopards released in Bhadra and Bandipur (Karnataka) led to attacks, and in at least one case, the killing of people.

Also, some of the cheetahs may be “conflict animals”, taken into captivity as they preyed on livestock. Rewilding such animals is asking for trouble, especially in a country as densely populated as India, with the highest livestock population in the world. Conflict with tigers and leopards is a serious issue with loss of livestock and life. Tigers have killed at least 224 people in India between 2014 and 2019, and there has been the occasional brutal retaliation like the mob that battered the animal as it lay nearly motionless in a village bordering Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, Uttar Pradesh. The cheetah is said to be a “timid” cat, not known to attack humans, but conflict over killing livestock is cited as a key threat to this predator. Is it prudent then to introduce another big cat into the equation, especially one wiped out from recent memory, and not viewed as a part of the landscape? Have we considered the views of the people; do they want the cheetah in their neighbourhood?

Another important question is, will the introduction eventually lead to a viable population that colonises the habitat? Unlikely. For one, cheetahs reproduce at a slow rate both in captivity and in the wild. They have a low sperm production and also lack genetic rigour. These — along with other threats — are inhibiting factors even in African range countries which have large tracts of savannah habitat, and have caused populations to plummet drastically — up to 80 per cent in some countries. The stock India imports will need to be substantial, for a genetically robust population. Ecologists question if India has adequate and ideal habitat for cheetahs, one of the widest ranging of big cats, and known to travel across areas in excess of 1,000 sq km every year. India has lost about 90 to 95 per cent of its grasslands, 31 per cent in just a decade between 2005-15 — so where will the cheetah roam, if it were ever returned to the wild?

The cheetah is built for speed. It has long, thin legs, a flattened rib-cage and small head that provides the least resistance when it cuts through air. Photo: Sue Berry/Shutterstock

The strongest argument in favour of the cheetah’s return is the belief that this charismatic big cat will be the saviour of its habitat — thorny, scrub forests and grasslands — the world’s most endangered ecosystems according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

I wish.

Some of the rarest of our wildlife are grassland species. The Indian wolf, as charismatic as any animal can be, has failed to serve as the ambassador of the biome it is dependent on. There are fewer than 100 great Indian bustards in India, and globally. The last count of lesser floricans indicated there were only about 260 left; and the status of caracals is precarious, but unknown. Grasslands are treated as poor cousins of forests, often decreed as ”wastelands”, routinely burnt, cleared, diverted for use by industry or for agriculture, or converted into “productive” woodlands to meet afforestation targets.

In 2006, a Planning Commission appointed task force recommended a series of protection measures, including graded legal protection, strict regulation of its diversion for industry etc. and recognised grasslands as eco fragile landscapes — none of which has seen the light of the day.

Let’s not put the cart before the horse. A robust policy to conserve these last remaining grassland fragments  must precede the cheetah, not depend on its arrival being the catalyst of preservation.

In its petition to allow the cheetah introduction, the National Tiger Conservation Authority argues that “tiger conservation has led to the protection of our forested national parks and sanctuaries”. Definitely. The Project Tiger umbrella has helped conserve the land as reserves. But that’s only part of the story. Protecting the national animal is a product of political will, which may wane. The tiger can be relegated to a mere inconvenience — as in the instance when a national highway is expanded, cutting through the Kanha-Pench corridor, one of the most important tiger landscapes globally. Its existence can be denied, like the state of Goa, where mining takes precedence, and tigers are periodically poached, like the poisoning of a tigress and three cubs in January 2020.  In Panna Tiger Reserve too, the existence of breeding tigresses was shrugged off — contrary to evidence — to allow the smooth passage of the Ken-Betwa river link, set to drown and destruct at least a third of the Panna Tiger Reserve.

One needs to remember that our affair with the cheetah is not a fling, it is a long-term commitment.. The government has done little to inspire confidence, diluting wildlife and forest laws to accommodate ”ease of business”. Between 2014 and 2017, it cleared forests equivalent of 63 football fields every single day, and even sanctuaries and national parks are being decimated and diverted for industry and infrastructure.

The cheetah population across the world is in grave danger, thanks to shrinking grasslands. Over the last century, cheetahs have gone locally extinct in at least 21 countries, and their numbers continue to fall. Photo: Dr Ajay Kumar Singh/Shutterstock

So how committed are we — the government and people of India — to protect the cheetah in perpetuity after the hype and the hoopla is over, and the hard realities of conservation kick in, and after governments and ministers change?

Do we have the resources required for this project, is another key question. This relocation project was estimated to cost Rs 300 crore in 2010-11. Maybe yes, but if we do, why are our existing “protected areas”, the last refuges of endangered wildlife like gharials, hangul, red pandas, wolves, floricans, dugongs, starved of funds? A senior official in the MoEF & CC explained that protected areas — apart from tiger reserves, some of which are well-funded — get on an average only about Rs 12 lakh annually.

In the current order, the court has noted that the cheetah should be brought in on “an experimental basis in a careful chosen habitat and nurtured and watched to see whether it can adapt to the Indian conditions”. Are we investing commitment and resources for what is really a fantastical experiment that may cost us, and the cheetah, dear? What stops us from channelling this to the conservation of our endangered wildlife, including no less than 15 species of wild cats?

Indeed, the SC’s 2013 order had disallowed the introduction of cheetahs calling it “arbitrary and illegal”, in part due to the lopsided idea of flying in an exotic species, while undermining its own native species, like the endangered Asiatic lion.

Why is it that we can pour passion into translocating and rehabilitating the cheetah from a foreign land, while we have not moved a muscle to shift the Asiatic lion from its only home in Gir National Park, where an infection or a natural calamity can wipe-off its last surviving wild population, a proposal hanging fire since the 1990s, and despite a 2013 Supreme Court order to do so?

The excitement that surrounds the arrival of the fastest animal on earth is palpable, meanwhile, our lions and other rare cats race against time.

Prerna Singh Bindra

is a wildlife conservationist and author of the critically acclaimed The Vanishing: India's Wildlife Crisis. She is a dog's best friend, loves books, reveres trees and has a soft spot for elephants.

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