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India plans return of the cheetah

A Mughal painting showing cheetahs hunting leopards (Courtesy: Benares Hindu University, India)
Cheetahs became extinct in India half a century ago

India plans to bring back the cheetah, nearly half a century after it became extinct in the country. The BBC's Soutik Biswas considers whether it is a good idea.

Will the world's fastest land animal make a comeback in India, nearly half a century after it became extinct in the country?

A serious initiative is afoot to bring the cheetah back to India and make it, as many wildlife experts say, the "flagship species" of the country's grasslands, which do not have a single prominent animal now.

A similar effort in the 1970s - India was then talking to Iran, which had around 300 cheetahs at that time - flopped after the Shah of Iran was deposed and the negotiations never progressed.

'Strong case'

A recent meeting of wildlife officials, cheetah experts and conservationists from all over the world discussed the "reintroduction" of the spotted cat and agreed that the case for its return to India was strong.

Seven sites - national parks, sanctuaries and other open areas - in the four states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh have been shortlisted as potential homes for the cheetah.

These sites will now be surveyed extensively to find out the state of the habitat, the number of prey and prospects of man-animal conflict to finally determine whether they can accommodate the cheetah.

Asiatic cheetah in Iran
The last Asiatic cheetah are found in Iran

If one or more sites are found to have favourable habitat and prey for the cheetah, India will then possibly have to import the cat from Africa, because the numbers of the Asiatic cheetah which are available only in Iran have dwindled to under 100.

The vast majority of the 10,000 cheetahs left in the world are in Africa.

Genetic scientists like the US-based Stephen O'Brien say that the genetic similarities between the Iranian and African cheetah is "very close", so there should be no problems bringing the latter to India.

Most of the experts agreed that wild cheetahs or the progeny of wild cheetahs in captivity should be brought to India, quarantined for a while, and released in the selected habitats.

Dr Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, says reintroducing the cheetah "will not be easy - but it is doable".

"We have the techniques and knowledge to do it. The cheetah living in India again might be a good thing. Its extinction is fairly recent and it is a top predator which could help by becoming an icon, help bring back the health of grassland ecosystems," she says.

'Haste'

But many leading conservationists have doubts about the current initiative.

They fear that in its haste to bring back the cheetah, India will end up housing them in semi-captive conditions in huge, secured open air zoos, but not free in the wild.

They say that without restoring habitat and prey base and the chances of a man-animal conflict, viable cheetah populations cannot be established.

"The present initiative of bringing in a few cheetahs from Africa and letting them loose in an enclosure where they will be fed artificially given the size of the enclosure and the cheetah's natural prey requirements is putting the cart before the horse," says Dr K Ulhas Karanth, one of India's top conservation experts.

Cheetah cub with mother
Conservationists fear that cheetahs will end up in 'controlled' environments

"Where are the several thousand square kilometres of habitat free of small livestock, children and other potential prey? If cheetahs are to be introduced, relocation of human settlements on a sufficient scale to create the vast habitats will be needed. How can we deal with conflict between cheetahs and wild animals?"

Studies show that at least 200 cheetahs were killed in India during the colonial period mainly due to conflicts with sheep and goat herders, and not because they were shot by trophy hunters.

Also, conservationists point to India's chequered record of reintroducing animals.

Lions were reintroduced in Chandraprabha santuary in the 1950s, but poached out of existence. Tigers were reintroduced in Dungarpur in the 1920s, but they were all shot dead by the end of 1950s.

Even captive breeding exercises have proved to be futile sometimes - in the early 1990s, American zoos captive-bred lion tailed monkeys for release in India's Western Ghats even as monkeys were getting poached and their forest habitats logged.

Then there is the question of prey - a cheetah, says environmental historian Mahesh Rangarajan, needs at least 50 to 80 antelope sized prey a year, and a mother needs more.

"Is such a prey base at all available?" asks Mr Rangarajan.

'Conserving ecosystem'

In India, cheetahs would essentially prey on blackbuck and gazelle -the largest herd of blackbuck in India is some 2,000 animals and already has the wolf as a predator.

"Cheetah could live off smaller prey, but then you need a lot more of them," says Mr Rangarajan.

But the conservationists who are leading the initiative say these fears are unfounded, and the decision to bring back the cat to India will only be taken after the shortlisted sites are fully examined for habitat, prey and potential for man-animal conflict.

Cheetah
Cheetahs require a huge prey base

MK Ranjitsinh, chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, which is participating in the new initiative, says the plan is to import African cheetahs and release them in the wild in designated open areas, which have been examined and checked thoroughly.

"The plan is to bring cheetahs from the wild in Africa and release them in the wild in India. The cat will help in conserving the ecosystem," he says.

Even the federal environment minister Jairam Ramesh is upbeat about the initiative.

"Personally, I feel we would be reclaiming a part of our wonderful and varied ecological history if the cheetah was to be reintroduced in the wild," he says.

Clearly it is early days and it may be quite some time before the cheetah stalks India's grasslands once again.

But reintroducing the cat in India has a lot of symbolic value.

The first cheetah in the world to be bred in captivity was in India during the rule of Mughal emperor Jahangir. His father, Akbar, recorded that there were 10,000 cheetahs during his time.

Much later, research showed that were at least 230 cheetahs in India between 1799 and 1968 - and the cat was reportedly sighted for the last time in the country in 1967-68.

Clearly, returning the cheetah to India - the only large mammal to become extinct since independence in 1947 - is going to be the easy part.

Making sure it thrives and doesn't get poached and get into conflict with humans is going to be much, much harder.



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