Cheetah: prelude, epilogue & the lost chapter

The cheetah reintroduction program which recently gathered much of the public attention is not a tyro in wildlife conservation arena of India. Cheetah becoming extinct in India spread consternation amongst the ministers in early 1950’s. The Ministry of Agriculture following this, assigned “priority to protection of cheetah in central India”. The conceptualization of cheetah reintroduction in India was developed by 1955 during meeting of Indian Board of Wildlife (End of Trail by Divyabhanusinhji). By this time the peril of animal and the idea of bringing back the only large mammal lost from the plains of India diffused into international conservation ambit.  A concern of P.F.R. Jackson (IUCN Cat Specialist Group) in 1985 regarding reintroduction of cheetah in India is a good idea or not was answered by S.J. O’Brien (Laboratory of Genomic Diversity) as “there is no genetic reason to preclude use of African cheetahs for introduction in Asia, the population bottleneck which produced the monomorphic cheetah was an ancient one (10-12,000 YA) which probably preceded the modern subspecies isolation by hundreds and perhaps thousands of years”. According to him, the reintroduction program in India would benefit the Cheetah in Namibia as they are looking for solution to the slaughter of cheetah in sheep ranching areas. O’Brian suggestion regarding Namibian cheetah shows us how we can bridge the countries conservation programs when species well-being is at the crux of such efforts.  Jackson’s concern espoused the vexation of Indian wildlife conservationists over extinction of cheetah and the following consequences and efforts to protect grasslands of our country. An effort by Dr. Ranjitsinhji&Divyabhanusinhji made the conservationists around the world excogitate a way to solve the impending problem in India i.e. the losing streak of grassland and lost streak of cheetah. In the mid 1980’s Dr.A.Rahmani (Director, BNHS) conducted survey to identify possible reintroduction sites,a report which is not officially available. More than six decades gone for the idea to materialize when finally in Gajner, Rajasthan in September, 2009 a meeting of national and international wildlife experts as well as bureaucrats gathered to contrive the reintroduction of the extinct animal. Following this meeting Wildlife Institute of India and Wildlife Trust of India were entrusted to prepare a road map for the cheetah reintroduction in India.

Reintroduction in IUCN lexicon is “to establish a viable, free ranging population in the wild of a species, subspecies or race which has become globally or locally extinct or extirpated in the wild, within the species natural habitat and range”. The IUCN guidelines provide the taxon substitution wherein in case of unavailability of species or sub-species,” related species or sub-species can be substituted as an ecological replacement”. O’Brian studies on cheetah had established that the cheetah is “genetically depauprate” or have very low genetic variability hence Indian cheetah reintroduction program can embark on sourcing cheetah from Africa. The critically endangered subspecies Acinonyx jubatus venaticus (Asiatic cheetah)is restricted to Iran, is estimated 60-100 (Hunter et al 2007) hence it cannot sustain removal.On deciding to source cheetah from Africa, the next step which Indian conservationists felt was finding the suitable site. Since cheetah is the top predator of the grassland, priority for such site was crucial. A detailed survey in 2010 was carried out envisaging the historical distribution of cheetah in India, with least human conflict in present scenario. The concern was not about conflict with humans directly as Cheetah do not attack humans (Laurie Marker of Cheetah Conservation Fund) but indirect conflict with livestock.  On the above mentioned basis, ten sites within seven landscapes were surveyed : Guru Ghasidas NP (Chattisgarh), Banni Grasslands (Gujarat), DubriWLS, SanjayNP, BagdaraWLS, Nauradehi WLS and Kuno-Palpur WLS (Madhya Pradesh), Desert NP and Shahgarh Grasslands (Rajasthan), Kaimur WLS (Uttar Pradesh). The study Assessing the potential for reintroducing the cheetah in India, 2010 proffered that 3 sites out of these surveyed were most suitable for the program. The sites Kuno WLS, Nauradehi WLS and Shahgarh grasslands, apart from having suitable grasslands, have advantage of least conflict with other large predators also. Kuno represents one resident tiger while in Nauradehi there has been no recent report of big cat. Shahgarh grasslands lack any large predator for a long time.

Following this survey a new development in cheetah genetics transpired. Charrauaet al 2011 paper concluded that  Southern African cheetah are the most diverse & basal to all lineages including the Asian  lineage though claiming at the same time that the Asiatic cheetah is a separate subspecies.Yet the genetic difference between putative sub species of cheetah is much smaller compared to other species. For exampleThe Asiatic and African sub-species of lion separated about 100,000 ya(O Brian, 2005)while Asiatic cheetah and African cheetah separated about 32000-67000ya (Charraua et al 2011).The genetic difference is along to considering human population of Spain to be different from Germany. However the study suggest source population for Indian reintroduction program should be based on “ecological, behavioural and viability criteria” and hence African cheetah was suggested suitable. Functionally as predator and ecologically as species the African and Asiatic cheetah are identical.

In 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests gave a positive nod to the preparation of roadmap for the reintroduction of cheetah and assigning an expenditure of about Rs 300 crore over ten years and for the three sites. The budget assigned to the project was independent of other conservation projects and since cheetah were being donated by Namibian government, the money allocated to cheetah project was by and large habitat conservation and village relocation oriented which in turn would be benefitting the grassland species like Great Indian bustard, blackbuck,chinkara, caracal, desert fox and Bengal florican. This benefit is not only extending to large mammal but to latitude of biodiversity inclusive of reptiles, birds and vegetation characteristic of grassland habitat.

The detailed survey of Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary & Nauradehi WLS (M.P.) and Shahgarh grassland (Rajasthan) were carried out in 2011-2012 to assess the prey base, habitat and perception of people towards wildlife. The survey concluded the results as action plans for the three sites. Of the three sites, Kuno WLS was found to be most suitable for reintroduction of cheetah as the primary site in India. Though (as pointed out by many that) the sanctuary is quite small for the free ranging cheetah but the contiguous forest patch around the sanctuary andsubstantial scrub-grasslands habitat provides a good reason for choosing the site.The reason of Kuno WLS being human habitation-free since 2002 (relocation of settlements from inside sanctuary in sequel of lion translocation program) and lion translocation was stymied due to political reasons, cheetah were planned to be reintroduced in the same.Establishment of cheetah at a site would not hamper lion translocation in future but the vice-versa is not possible. Cheetah and lion had co-existed in historical times in India and as currently in Africa. The decision of Supreme Court in April 2013 staunched the fillip added by conservationists to the reintroduction efforts for the three years of surveys.

Compared to worldwide status, India is still lagging behind in its carnivore translocation programs, in recent times.Though there have been very early attempts in Indian history of wildlife like The Maharaja of Kutch had successfully reintroduced leopard from Sirohi, Rajasthan. Maharaja of Dungarpur also successfully reintroduced one tiger and two tigresses in 30’s. The famous white tiger “Mohan” was brought up in captivity by Maharaja of Rewa in 50’s and was crucial in successful breeding programs of white tigers. Billy Arjan Singh raised a leopard “Prince” and a tigress “Tara” which he latter successfully introduced in the wild, though Tara legacy is contentious. The more recent programs are tiger translocation in Sariska tiger reserve in 2006 from Ranthambore National Park, and Panna tiger reserve in 2009 from Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Pench Tiger Reserve.

Cheetah projectwould have provided a major opportunity for working with international wildlife experts and exposure to forest staffs and researchers on a global scale. It is India’s opportunity to bring back lost glory of grassland, which it had lost for more than 50 years now, luckily not from the face of the earth. As almostless than 1% grassland comes under protected area network (report of the task force on Grasslands and Deserts), the flagship species like great Indian bustard, Bengal florican, one-horned rhinoceros help in conserving these limited grasslands. Cheetah being the top predator of grassland will not only help in top down regulation of grassland ecosystem but also having large home range will bring larger area under aegis of protected area network. The iconic stance of cheetah will support conservation by appealing to local people as well.

The capacity and vision as well the moral responsibility and political will brought the efforts to a positive pace with having India ready for such reintroduction program. It is not only we can conceive the “bold experiment” but we have capacity to execute it too.Hope India’s dream to heal its ecosystems does not get delayed to beyond repair and its conservationist’s vision, efforts and enthusiasm does not get pinioned for eternity.

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