By the end of this year, India will receive its first batch of cheetahs from Africa nearly, 70 years after the cheetah was declared locally extinct or extirpated. 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 within a week’s time. They will train Indian forest officers and wildlife experts on handling, breeding, rehabilitation, medical treatment and conservation of the large cats.
While India prepares to welcome the cheetah from Africa, this is the first ever time in the world that a large carnivore will be relocated from one continent to another.
The Cheetah was declared extinct by the government in 1952. It is believed that the animal became extinct after Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya hunted and shot the last three recorded Asiatic cheetahs in India in 1947.
Last year, the Supreme Court gave the green signal to the Centre, although the current relocation attempt began in 2009.
An assessment of the sites for relocation has been completed by 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, The Indian Express reported.
As many as six sites have been re-assessed by WII for the relocation of cheetahs from Africa to India, which had been previously assessed in 2010 — 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.
Kuno National Park has been identified as being ready for relocation. Since 2006, the site has been monitored and was also identified for relocating the Asiatic Lion. Both the animals share the same habitat which is 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.
“Kuno National Park is currently ready for reintroduction of cheetah with minimal actions required,” says the WII assessment. It added that Gandhi Sagar-Chittorgarh-Bhainsrorgarh wildlife sanctuaries also “adequately” meet the criteria.
Back in the early 1970s, negotiations were carried out by Dr M K Ranjitsinh with Iran on behalf of the Indira Gandhi administration, in an attempt to relocate the cheetah.
“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.
Besides the cheetah being over hunted, Dr Ranjitsinh while talking about the reasons for its extinction, pointed also to the decimation of its relatively narrow prey base and the loss of its grassland-forest habitats.
“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.