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India Proceeds With Plan To Bring Cheetahs Back, but Experts Brace for Bad News

India Proceeds With Plan To Bring Cheetahs Back, but Experts Brace for Bad News

A cheetah stands on a rock. Credit: Glavo/pixabay

A cheetah stands on a log. Photo: Glavo/pixabay

  • A plan to introduce African cheetahs to India has been on the cards for almost two decades now.
  • The first batch of 12-14 African cheetahs will be brought from Namibia or South Africa this year to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno-Palpur National Park.
  • But biologists continue to question the need for this project – and are sceptical about the ministry’s claim that the animals will help India’s grasslands.

Kochi: By 2026, around 50 African cheetahs are expected to roam India’s grasslands.

That’s the plan at least, according to Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav, who launched an ‘Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India’ on January 5 at the 19th meeting of the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

India will import the first batch of African cheetahs to the Kuno-Palpur National Park in Madhya Pradesh beginning this year. According to the action plan, “bringing back” the cheetah to India will help conserve the currently-neglected grassland habitats in the country.

Experts, however, are not convinced at all that this will help conserve grassland habitats, which are still officially designated ‘wastelands’ in India.

‘Project Cheetah’

India’s savannah grasslands were once home to the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus). But hunters brought down the last wild cheetahs in 1947, although there remained some “credible reports” of the species from the Indian subcontinent up to the 1990s, researchers wrote in 2019.

According to another report, the Indian government mooted the first plans to reintroduce cheetahs to India in the 1970s. The action plan says the environment ministry engaged the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, in 2009 to survey potential reintroduction sites.

“Project Cheetah aims to bring back the only extinct large mammal in independent India – the cheetah,” Yadav writes in the plan document, a 300-page book. “The project is not only about the charismatic cheetah in itself, but more for its role to restore the balance within ecosystems it inhabited” (sic).

India aims to do this by introducing African cheetahs – a different subspecies, Acinonyx jubatus jubatus – to the grassland habitats that the Asiatic cheetahs occupied in the past.

And experts have questioned the rationale of introducing a new subspecies of cheetah to India. Work by one team of researchers in Vienna showed significant genetic differences between subspecies, which could translate to genetic differences in adaptations to habitats.

As a rebuttal to this criticism, the action plan carries a letter written by an international team of genetic conservationists to the South African, Namibian and Indian environment ministries, suggesting that this isn’t an issue. They wrote that according to “cumulative genetic data”, cheetahs from South Africa and Namibia (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) are “fully suitable and appropriate for transport and re-introduction into habitats of India selected for cheetah restoration”.

The action plan’s objectives include establishing breeding African cheetah populations across the historical range of Asiatic cheetahs. To this end, the government will import 12-14 wild African cheetahs that are “ideal” – genetically diverse, disease-free, etc. – from South Africa, Namibia and/or other African countries, as ‘founder stock’ for the first five years.

The 748 sq. km Kuno-Palpur National Park in Madhya Pradesh will be the first release site. According to the plan document, the park can sustain up to 21 cheetahs.

‘Project Cheetah’ is also expected to lead to ecosystem restoration activities in cheetah conservation areas. These, the plan says, will help the landscape sequester more carbon and contribute to India’s climate change mitigation goals. The cats are also to be a source of ecotourism, and thus livelihood generation, for the local community.

Yet another objective is to use the African cheetah as a “charismatic flagship and umbrella species to garner resources for restoring open forest and savannah systems that will benefit biodiversity and ecosystem services from these ecosystems”.

‘Flagship’ species are those whose conservation can help conserve other, even unrelated, species and sometimes even the entire animal community or ecosystem. Some ecologists hold the view that, if done right and with a long-term vision, bringing in cheetahs could save the neglected grasslands themselves and the pastoralists who depend on them, ecologist Akshay Surendra wrote for The Wire Science in February 2020.

Also read: Coming Soon to Kuno National Park: Cheetahs, Filmmakers and Many Questions

Flagship species from Africa?

But India already has many native and charismatic grassland species – like the caracal[footnote]Caracal caracal[/footnote], the Indian wolf[footnote]Canis lupus pallipes[/footnote], the Indian blackbuck[footnote]Antilope cervicapra[/footnote] and the great Indian bustard[footnote]Ardeotis nigriceps[/footnote], which are highly endangered, Ravi Chellam, a member of the Biodiversity Collaborative and CEO of Metastring Foundation, Bengaluru, a technology non-profit, said.

“We should invest and focus our conservation efforts on such native species as it will benefit both the species as well as their varied grassland habitats,” he wrote in an email.

India also has different types of grasslands across the country: the Himalaya, Western Ghats, Eastern Ghats, grasslands in the Northeast, and those in Central and Western India. They are extremely diverse and home to very unique native fauna, he added.

“Cheetahs are not going to live in all these types of grasslands,” said Chellam, whose research work on large carnivores and the Asiatic lion is quoted in the plan. “A single species imported from a foreign country cannot serve as the ambassador for the conservation of all grasslands occurring in India.”

‘Won’t aid grasslands in current form’

Given how the plan is currently structured, it will do very little for actual grassland conservation in India, said Abi Vanak, a senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru, who also studies savannah grassland ecosystems in India.

He described several reasons.

First, the plan continues the government’s focus on existing protected areas, which mostly exclude open natural ecosystems (ONEs). In a 2021 study, Vanak and M.D. Madhusudan wrote that ONEs are the focus of tree-based restoration and afforestation programmes and preferred sites to install grid-based solar farms.

The duo reported in the same study that India’s existing protected areas in the country cover less than 5% of ONEs.

And large tracts of these ONEs are being rapidly converted for other uses, Vanak said.  ONEs “have had among the highest rates of conversion to other land use classes in the past 40-50 years,” Vanak said, adding that Yadav had said in a January tweet that “the threats to cheetahs had abated, but this is clearly not the case”.

Second, the plan is an “entirely top-down exercise” that “repeats the mistakes of the past” by not taking the main stakeholders of grassland ecosystems – the pastoralists – into confidence.

“Such a programme will eventually lead to the same problems that tiger and other species’ conservation in India suffers from – that of exclusion, conflict and state hegemony on deciding conservation issues,” Vanak wrote in an email to The Wire Science.

Third, the plan doesn’t address the main forces that have been destroying grasslands for the last 70 years: the “forestry-centric approach that has neglected these ONEs, and continues to label them as ‘wastelands’,” according to Vanak. Indeed, there is currently no policy to manage grasslands and most of them are still called ‘wastelands’.

Fourth, the species that already depend on these ONEs, including the caracal and the great Indian bustard, are among India’s most endangered. The population of the great Indian bustard in particular has reportedly shrunk dramatically, from an estimated 1,260 in 1969 to around 150 today.

“One must take care to ensure that the survival and conservation of these species and their habitats does not get diluted due to the excessive spotlight being shone on cheetah introduction,” Vanak added.

Also read: The Greatly Unfortunate Indian Bustard

An existing contender

In 2013, the Supreme Court had stayed a decision by the then environment ministry to import cheetahs from Namibia to Kuno. The court’s principal concern was that officials were already planning to introduce another large carnivore to Kuno at the time: the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo leo), which is found only in India.

In the mid-1990s, when the last records of wild cheetahs were coming in, the Government of India picked Kuno to move Asiatic lions from Gujarat, to help establish a second free-ranging population of the species in the world. This would decrease extinction risks to the Asiatic lion, which is currently found only in Gujarat’s Gir forest. But the Gujarat government has been reluctant to part with what it believes are its lions – an example of the ‘state hegemony’ to which Vanak alluded. And state pride is one reason why.

Although the Supreme Court had ordered the Indian government to move the lions to Kuno within six months, Chellam said it has been more than eight years now and Gujarat isn’t considering anything of the sort.

“This has no conservation logic,” he wrote. “Which of the two should we focus on now, the cheetah or the lion? What should be the conservation priority: Asiatic lions that live only in and around the Gir forest or the African cheetahs that are yet to be brought from Africa?”

But Gujarat may be able to hang on to its lions for longer: biologists have said lions can be introduced into the same park only after the newly-introduced cheetahs have started breeding (the lions could keep the cheetah population from expanding).

Once the cheetah population is established, the reintroduction of lions or even the natural movement of tigers into Kuno, through existing wildlife corridors, won’t be “detrimental” to the cheetahs, according to the action plan. But this remains to be seen.

Conservationists have also alleged that the real aim of the cheetah introduction project is tourism, after officials at Kuno National Park floated a tender for videographers to film the cheetahs with an opening bid of Rs 42 lakh.

This said, the bottomline is clear: setting aside the opportunity cost of not supporting endangered animals that are already in India, there are several risks to introducing African cheetahs in the country. Multiple well-oiled mechanisms will need to be in place to see them survive in their new home at all – much less rescue India’s grasslands.

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