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‘Mistakes will be made’: Why worries stalk India’s plans to bring back the cheetah

New Delhi: If all goes according to plan, India will likely receive 12 cheetahs from South Africa within the next few months. The aim behind the translocation is to revive a species that first went extinct in India in the 1950s.

At Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park, the primary site for the “reintroduction”, preparations for housing the cheetahs are underway, though details of their arrival are yet to be finalised.

A spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries of South Africa told ThePrint that a proposal for relocation had been received and “is being considered”.

Another eight cheetahs were to be brought in from Namibia as well, but the Namibian government has reportedly not yet agreed to the India’s proposal of translocating the large cats.

A delegation from South Africa had visited the forest and wildlife departments of Madhya Pradesh between 15 and 17 June to brief the officials on how to handle the cheetahs once they arrive, the South African spokesperson further said. Earlier this month, a delegation from India had visited both South Africa and Namibia to observe how to treat and care for the animals.

“We learned about the kind of health issues that affect cheetahs, what field conditions they will require and how to properly monitor them,” Kuno National Park Director Prakash Verma, who was part of the delegation to both countries, told ThePrint.

ThePrint reached a representative of the Namibian government by email for a comment on the relocation plan, but no response was received by the time of publishing this article.

The plan to bring cheetahs to India — initially from Iran and now from the African continent — has been decades in the making, and fraught with controversy. Conservationists in India are skeptical of the plan’s success and fear it will detract attention from the conservation of other endangered species in need of translocation, like the Asiatic lion.

In 2012, the Supreme Court had stayed the government’s plans to import cheetahs, and in 2013 reiterated its stance, saying that the government needed to produce a detailed study before the introduction of cheetahs from Africa could be considered.

The Kuno National Park had originally been earmarked for the reintroduction of the Asiatic lion from Gir in Gujarat, which the Supreme Court in 2013 had said was of “utmost importance”, ordering that the lions be translocated within six months of the judgment.

Nearly a decade later, diversifying the lion’s habitat — considered essential for its long-term survival by conservationists in India — has been overshadowed by the cheetah relocation plan after the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) appealed the apex court to reconsider its decision in 2017.

After the NTCA’s appeal, the Supreme Court in 2020 permitted it to introduce the cheetah on an “experimental basis”, despite an SC-appointed expert panel rejecting the project.

The government released an ‘Action Plan for introduction of Cheetah in India’ in January this year and, according to media reports, officials estimate the cheetahs could arrive as early as in August, marking the first ever transcontinental relocation of an endangered species.

“My personal belief is that we will encounter difficulties initially, with low survival rates for the initial founder populations sent to India,” said a South African conservation biologist involved with the project, who did not wished to be named.

“The Indian conservation authorities will learn as we go along, as we did in Southern Africa, where more than 70 cheetah reintroductions have been attempted since 1965. Mistakes will be made initially, but lessons will be learnt,” the biologist added.

The price of these mistakes — and the time taken to realise them — is what conservationists in India are concerned about.

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Making a case for the cheetahs

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global authority on the status of the natural world, about 7,100 cheetahs remain in the world and their numbers have been on the decline despite efforts.

The plan to “reintroduce” the cheetah in India was announced in 2009 and formulated in 2010 under the leadership of then environment minister Jairam Ramesh. The plan was popularised as an opportunity for India to make a global breakthrough in wildlife conservation.

At first, the Indian government approached Iran to supply the rare Asiatic cheetah — the same subspecies that went extinct in India — to re-establish their presence in the subcontinent. The government was even keen on cloning the Asiatic cheetah, but Iran refused repeatedly, citing low numbers of the species in its own country.

To keep the plan alive, the government looked to import the African cheetah — a different subspecies that has never existed in India.

“There are some fairly minor morphological differences between the African and Asian cheetahs, but these features are not likely to be significant in terms of their ability to survive in different environments,” Dr Adrian Tordiffe, a specialist wildlife veterinarian based in South Africa and involved in the reintroduction, told ThePrint.

In South Africa, cheetahs have survived in a wide range of habitats. “We, therefore, consider them to be very adaptable despite their limited genetic variability,” he added.

“The Indian government’s aim to bring cheetah back to India, at a time when global big cat populations are in decline, is to be commended,” Sarah Durant, a senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London and Wildlife Conservation Society told ThePrint over email, adding that their management and ultimate release is essential for the project’s success.

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Can India give cheetahs a good home?

The hope is that the Rs 224 crore effort (as estimated by the government in its cheetah reintroduction plan document) doesn’t come to naught. Several studies have shown that breeding cheetahs in captivity is extremely difficult.

“What the cheetah needs more than anything is space,” said wildlife vet Tordiffe. “India has the environment, the prey species and the necessary protection to expand the range of the cheetah, giving it some possibility of survival into the future.”

“The Indian government seems to have had great success with their conservation of tigers and I believe they have the expertise to manage cheetahs effectively after the introduction,” he added.

A fenced enclosure has been erected spanning 500 hectares of the Kuno National Park, complete with eight partitions and plenty of watering holes, park director Verma told ThePrint. The cheetahs will be monitored closely through cameras and radio collars.

But is the prey-base really sufficient? To survive, cheetahs don’t just need a sufficient prey base, but also moderate predator density and low human activity.

“Leopard densities are extremely high at the Kuno National Park,” said the South African conservation biologist quoted earlier. “I anticipate high losses [initially] due to conflict with leopards, snaring, starvation and possibly retaliatory killings due to human-wildlife conflict. Regardless, we will adopt a metapopulation approach, with regular supplementation.”

After the initial batch of 12 cheetahs is brought to India, eight will arrive each year from South Africa, ThePrint has learnt.

“Our hope is that we initially reintroduce the most populous subspecies, the southern African cheetah. Many cheetahs will be lost but valuable lessons will be learnt, and capacity will be developed. We can then look at reintroduction of more endangered cheetah subspecies or evolutionary significant units into India,” the biologist added.

According to Faiyaz Khudsar, a conservation biologist who has worked at the Kuno National Park for eight years and did his PhD on the lion translocation plan, the best prey for the cheetah is the chinkara (Indian gazelle).

According to the technical report of the relocation plan, there are “0.19” chinkara per square kilometer of the sanctuary.

“This area was prepared for lions. What will be the cheetah’s prey base? The numbers of chinkara have been coming down, as have the numbers of Blackbuck, while the leopard population has gone up. This plan could be detrimental,” said Khudsar.

‘Why not our own wildlife?’ ask conservationists

The cheetah relocation is also being touted as a means to conserve India’s fast-depleting grasslands, which is home to a myriad other species — including the critically-endangered Great Indian Bustard and the endangered Indian wolf.

According to the plan, the best case scenario is for Kuno National Park to host 36 “individuals” after the cheetahs establish themselves.

“The government has classified grasslands as wastelands. Why do we need cheetahs to conserve these ecosystems if they are wastelands? It’s a needlessly expensive exercise which is doomed to fail,” said Ravi Chellam, CEO of Metastring Foundation, and coordinator of the Biodiversity Collaborative, a network of institutions and individuals promoting biodiversity science in India and its application in conservation and sustainable development.

“Thirty-six cheetahs is not a self-sustaining population, and it’s a method that requires huge intervention for a species that is not a conservation priority for India. It is not even mentioned in the National Wildlife Action Plan, 2017-31,” he added.

While speaking to ThePrint, both Khudsar and Chellam highlighted the need for the Asiatic lion’s relocation — which the government of Gujarat has been reluctant to participate in — because of risks of disease affecting the whole population.

“Why save African cheetahs? Why not our own wildlife?” asked Chellam.

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)

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Source: The Print

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