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Nearly 70 years after the cheetah was declared locally extinct or extirpated, India will receive its first batch of the large cats from Africa by the end of this year. Within a week’s time, two expert teams — one from Namibia and the other from South Africa — the two countries with the highest cheetah populations in the world, will arrive to train Indian forest officers and wildlife experts on handling, breeding, rehabilitation, medical treatment and conservation of the animals.
This is the first time in the world that a large carnivore will be relocated from one continent to another.
The animal is believed to have disappeared from the country when Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya hunted and shot the last three recorded Asiatic cheetahs in India in 1947. It was declared extinct by the government in 1952.
While the current relocation attempt began in 2009, it is only last year that the Supreme Court gave the green signal to the Centre.
An expert committee set up by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change under the chairmanship of Wildlife Trust of India board member and former Director Wildlife of the Indian Government, Dr M K Ranjitsinh, along with members of the Wildlife Institute of India, WWF, NTCA and officials from the Centre and states, have completed an assessment of the sites for relocation.
Six sites, which had previously been assessed in 2010, have now been re-assessed by WII — Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve and Shergarh Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan and Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kuno National Park, Madhav National Park and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.
Of these, the expert committee has identified Kuno National Park as being ready for the relocation. The site has been monitored since 2006 as it had also been identified for relocating the Asiatic Lion. Both animals share the same habitat — semi-arid grasslands that stretch across Gujarat-Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh.
“While there was never any problem with cheetahs and lions sharing the same space, the Supreme Court felt at the time this was not conducive to the lion. The court had instructed that the lion be introduced at Kuno in 2013; that is yet to happen. Last year, the Supreme Court gave the go ahead to introduce cheetahs here. But one site is not enough for a healthy population of cheetahs in the country. So, we will upgrade the other identified sites, which have conducive habitats, so it can be introduced in four-five places at least over the coming five or six years. But this year, we will relocate eight cheetahs to Kuno to begin with. The idea is to relocate 35-40 cheetahs across the identified sites,” said Dr Y V Jhala, the WII Dean and expert committee member.
The upgradation of sites requires sizable investments to relocate villages, control grazing of goats and cattle, and augment prey for the cheetah through translocation of blackbuck, chital, chinkara, wild boar, etc.
In Kuno National Park, because of the lion relocation project, the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department had already relocated a number of villages and declared it a ‘national park’, which led to “remarkable recovery in its habitat, prey abundance and reduction of human impacts”, states the assessment carried out by WII earlier this year.
The Park spans across 261 square kilometres and is a part of the Kuno wildlife division with an area of 1,235 square kilometres. It has a healthy population of chital, sambar, nilgai, wild pig, chinkara and cattle. Currently, the leopard and striped hyena are the only larger carnivores within the National Park, with the lone tiger having returned to Ranthambore earlier this year.
“Kuno National Park is currently ready for reintroduction of cheetah with minimal actions required,” says the WII assessment, adding that Gandhi Sagar-Chittorgarh-Bhainsrorgarh wildlife sanctuaries also “adequately” meet the criteria.
This isn’t the first time that India has attempted a relocation of the cheetah. In the early 1970s, Dr M K Ranjitsinh carried out negotiations with Iran on behalf of the Indira Gandhi administration.
“Indira Gandhi was very keen on bringing back the cheetah. The negotiations went well and Iran promised us the cheetah, but our potential release sites needed to be upgraded with an increase in prey base and greater protection. Moreover, during the process, the Emergency was declared in the country and soon after the Shah of Iran fell,” Dr Ranjitsinh said.
While the Persian cheetah was preferred for relocation, being Asiatic, this is no longer possible as the cheetah population in Iran has dwindled to under 50.
“As a flagship species, the conservation of the cheetah will revive grasslands and its biomes and habitat, much like Project Tiger has done for forests and all the species that have seen their numbers go up. While there is a lot of emphasis on preservation of forests, grasslands are a hugely neglected habitat in the country — we have a forest policy but not grasslands policy. And yet, the largest number of Schedule I protected animals under the Wildlife Protection Act reside in these grasslands. Endangered species like the caracal will fall under the flagship cheetah project and will be conserved in turn,” he added.
While over-hunting was a huge contributing factor for the cheetah going extinct, Dr Ranjitsinh also pointed to the decimation of its relatively narrow prey base and the loss of its grassland-forest habitats. With India’s emphasis on agriculture at the time of Independence, acquiring and parcelling off grasslands for agriculture led to its decline, he said.