India has had a chequered history with its wildlife, but a bold experiment is kicking off this week that seeks to fill a deeply-felt void. Seventy-five years ago, when India entered its independent era, it had tragically coincided with intimations of one of its majestic big cats—the cheetah—being poised on the brink of extinction. Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of the princely state of Koriya, in modern-day Chhattisgarh, was photographed the same way a lot of his peers liked to be—gun in hand, and with three dead cheetahs at his feet. Problem was, those were the last cheetahs of India to be seen.
This was part of a global story of enforced species depletion: from an estimated 100,000 at the dawn of the last century, the last count in 2016 put overall cheetah numbers at 7,100. The bulk of them were in southern Africa, a small band survived in Iran. India was out of the story. By 1952, we formally declared the cheetah to be extinct—the first animal species to be consigned to history in our post-Independence era. Modern scientists surmise that the Indian subspecies, Acinonyx jubatus venaticus, perhaps survived in fragmentary form in the wild perhaps for another decade, but never with the robustness of population that would enable a comeback. For nearly a century of millennia before that, the cheetah had ranged far and wide across the Indian landmass—from Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu to the vast northern plains—in the hundreds of thousands.
The cheetah’s original foe was the homo sapiens. Rampant hunting till the days of the last maharajas and their British colonial masters was just one source of danger. Traditionally, the danger came from a sport that was all the rage for centuries—cheetah coursing, or hunting with tamed cheetahs. The pharaohs of Egypt, kings and popes in Europe, Genghis Khan… they all liked to have a few pet cheetahs around. Akbar liked more than a few—over his lifetime, he had 9,000 in his stable. His favourite cheetah, named Samand Malik, had a bejewelled coat and was carried by liveried soldiers. The British treated cheetahs as vermin that needed to be exterminated to preserve the bigger and seemingly more majestic game—the tiger and lions. Cheetahs were bounty-hunted with rewards ranging from Rs 6 to Rs 18 for adults—then a princely sum of money.
We are now seeking to undo the damage caused over the centuries with a unique project: the first intercontinental translocation of a carnivore in the wild. Imported cheetahs, to be precise. But where to rewild them? The spot chosen for this, after years of scanning suitable habitats, is the Kuno National Park, in northwestern Madhya Pradesh—an area that had once formed the favourite hunting grounds of the Scindias from nearby Gwalior. If all goes right, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will personally release the cheetahs into a carefully-designed semi-wild enclosure on September 17, his birthday. After a month, they will be set free in the 750 sq. km forest-savannah mosaic of Kuno.
The magnificent beasts are coming from Namibia—eight in the first lot. As Union environment minister Bhupendra Yadav says, the idea is to take it up as a pilot project and build up to 25 cheetahs, scaling up to a stable population base that can eventually feed other suitable habitats. The latter is a key point: cheetah, the fastest terrestrial animal on earth that possess an acceleration rivalling most sports cars and can hit an astounding 120 kmph, needs open savannah for its unique sprint-based biological specialisation. Southern Africa’s vast savannahs are perfect for it. The Indian wild, by contrast, mostly has jungle and scrubland. Kuno is the closest approximation we have found. It had originally been preparing to accept lions from Gir—an idea in a limbo at present—but the very preparations created a special ecological niche. Some 24 villages had been relocated to make the reserve free of humans, and their former farmlands have now grown into lush grasslands, which intersperse forests made up of hardy local trees like khair and tendu.
The idea has been in gestation since the 1970s, when the Indira Gandhi regime approached the Shah of Iran, but regime change on both sides put paid to the idea. Iran, the only remaining outpost of the Asiatic cheetah, also had very slender numbers. The only possible recourse was to go to the very zone where the cheetah still ranges free and among the putative sites where the modern A. jubatus first emerged: fossils dating from 3.9 million years ago found in southern Africa have joined the corpus of evidence over which evolutionary biologists have been long debating.
So we are getting eight from the finest stock. But will they survive? There are many hurdles to cross. Their older foes remain—those already present in nature. A species evolved from the puma lineage and therefore only a cousin of the more familiar panthera family—the lion, tiger and leopard—cheetahs are also the most vulnerable among the big cats. Its biological specialisation—a streamlined torso lighter than that of the average human, non-retractable claws that work like a sprinter’s spikes but render it unable to climb trees like leopards—itself makes it a fragile, if magnificent cat. And then, there’s the question of the prey base. Will it be adequate? What about competition from leopards and wandering tigers? Will they endure against all the odds?
Senior Associate Editor Rahul Noronha, our man in Bhopal, dips into his passion for wildlife to describe the drama, explain the nuances,and sum up the big dispute raging among conservationists. Valmik Thapar is the prime dissenter: he deems the African cheetah to be an exotic species that will not make a good life of the Kuno habitat, and he would rather that India spend its precious conservation resources on saving what we have. M.K. Ranjitsinh, a legend in India’s wildlife conservation, and others beg to differ. Post-Independence, two major conservation projects—to save the Indian tiger and lion—have met with success. But this we did by boosting existing numbers. Never before in the world has such an intercontinental project been attempted as the return of the cheetah to India. Ecologists and animal lovers the world over will be keenly watching how it progresses.