In a rare transcontinental conservation feat, eight cheetahs from Namibia were relocated to Kuno Palpur National Park in Madhya Pradesh last week. Beyond the political slugfest that has typically followed the high-profile relocation, the moment has an undeniable ecological import and needs to be celebrated as such. The extirpation of big carnivores is reflective of simultaneous destruction of the environment and rare ecosystems which has triggered global concern and conservation efforts that include reintroduction of species in varied habitats. In some instances, the reintroduction has been marked by big successes such as the recovery of the wolf in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,US, and Banff National Park in Canada.
Back home, tiger reintroduction from within the country has been attempted with varying results in Sariska and Panna national parks. Indeed, India, with 2,967 tigers spread across 52 reserves, is uniquely placed for reintroducing the cheetah. The project has a special significance not just in terms of national conservation ethos but also its wide ecological ramifications. The cheetah’s prey inhabits endangered grasslands that are home to other threatened species including the caracal, the Indian wolf and three endangered species of the bustard family — the houbara, the lesser florican and the Great Indian bustard. However, the project’s success is being questioned by conservationists on the grounds that it is a vanity project at the cost of conservation of grasslands and the species that inhabit them, as also pending relocation projects, especially that of the Asiatic lions from Gir. Objections include India’s lack of experience in rearing the cheetahs and the absence of the vast range of habitations required, in excess of 1,000 sq km that they travel in a year. But field studies indicate a realistic optimism. Kuno Palpur was considered most suitable among 10 sites surveyed because it had already been developed for reintroduction of the Gir lions by removing all human settlements and redeveloping the habitat to make the 748 sq km area contiguous with the larger Sheopur-Shivpuri dry open forest landscape spanning an area of 6,800 sq km.
The issue, therefore, is not about whether it is a vanity project or whether the cheetahs will survive but rather of the need to focus on larger systemic issues. For instance, the Environment Ministry has exempted 13 pending railway projects spread over 800 hectares of land from the process of seeking forest permits. These clearances are expected to adversely impact a national park, a tiger reserve and wildlife sanctuaries. While development is inevitable and important, all efforts must be taken to ensure that disruption to wildlife and environment is mitigated as much as possible. A good example is the tunnels, animal overpasses and underpasses, complete with noise barriers and boundary walls, planned on the Delhi-Mumbai expressway as it passes through the Ranthambore, Mukundra and Matheran wildlife sanctuaries. While the cheetah translocation experiment deserves praise, a holistic approach to wildlife conservation is the need of the hour. The momentum from this project should be built upon for greater efforts to preserve our wildlife.