Science

Will the cheetah grace Indian forests again?

M Somasekhar Hyderabad | Updated on February 12, 2020 Published on February 12, 2020
A small reserve in Mukuni helps breed the big cats for release into protected areas, as well as help the locals learn more about these species.

File photo

SC directive allowing import of the animal from Africa poses challenges

Can the extinct Indian cheetah be brought back? Was it really driven to extinction? Can the ‘imported’ cheetahs from Africa feel at home in Indian forests?

These are some of the questions that have arisen after the January 28 Supreme Court directive giving the green signal to introducing cheetahs from Namibia into a suitable habitat in the country.

According to reports, the last Indian cheetah died around 1948. In 1952, it was declared extinct.

Over the years, cheetahs brought in from abroad have been kept in zoos. Scientists have also attempted to clone the Indian cheetah.

A few years ago, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had moved the Supreme Court, making a strong case to introduce the African cheetah from Namibia. The court cleared the proposal, and set up a three-member committee of experts to guide it in the matter last month.

Past efforts

In 2013, the apex court had quashed a ₹300-crore government project to import the Namibian cheetah. The first batch of cheetahs from the African nation was to be introduced into the Kuno Palpur wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. But the SC ruling put a stop to it.

Incidentally, efforts were already underway by then to introduce the Asiatic lion from Gir forests of Gujarat to Kuno Palpur, which was developed in the 1990s. However, the State government refused to part with its lions, calling them ‘Gujarat’s pride’. That project, again, got stuck.

Meanwhile, the Centre proceeded to come up with Nauradehi in Madhya Pradesh and Shahgarh Landscape in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, to house the cheetahs. These locations were selected and suggested over a decade ago by wildlife experts, when Project Cheetah was formulated. In 2009, then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh approved it, based on the proposal of MK Ranjitsinh Jhala, a leading wildlife expert.

CCMB cloning project

The Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) had initiated an ambitious project to clone the Indian cheetah. Scientists collected DNA samples from taxidermied animals. But this is yet to bear fruit.

In 2003, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, on his visit to India, visited the CCMB. The institute’s then Director Lalji Singh requested a pair of Iranian cheetah, or material for cloning, under a collaborative project. However, the Iranians were not prepared to allow the export of the animal or its semen. The Iranian cheetah is considered the closest to the Indian one.

Karthikeyan Vasudevan, Principal Scientist of LaCoNes ( a lab for the conservation of nature and endangered species), which grew out of the CCMB, said: “We wanted to bring back the Indian cheetah alive, but were handicapped by insufficient material.” Also, the cheetah population in Iran is small. Hence, that effort fizzled out, too.

Can the imports survive?

Wildlife experts say that for cheetahs to survive, a large area of grassland and a prey base is required. Also, being the mildest of the wild cats, cheetahs need protection from cattle and humans straying into their areas. Most sanctuaries in India are porous, which will pose a problem irrespective of where the animals are released.

The loss of grasslands have, in a way, contributed significantly to the vanishing of cheetahs and Jerdon’s coursers (a nocturnal bird), and a decline in the numbers of the lesser florican, the great Indian bustard, etc, said Vasudevan.

Asked about the proposal to house the Namibian cheetah in Kuno Palpur, a wildlife expert said: “If we are unable to get the Asiatic lion to move from the neighbouring State and get it to acclimatise, how easy will it be to get the imported cat? That’s anybody’s guess.”

Three-member panel

Now, the three-member expert committee — comprising wildlife expert Jhala, Indian Forest Service official Dhananjai Mohan and the DIG (Wildlife), Ministry of Environment — will help the NTCA examine locations such as Nauradehi, Kuno Palpur and Jaisalmer.

If the cheetahs land here, India will be the only country to house six of the world’s eight large cats in the wild — the other five being lions, tigers, leopards, panthers and jaguars. Though the smallest of the big cats, cheetah is the fastest land animal, running at 100 kmph.

Published on February 12, 2020
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