Giving the African cheetah a run for its money

Since inception, reintroduction of the animal was a contentious issue; the lack of a well-formulated, transparent plan of action made it even worse


Divya Karnad | May 25, 2012

How much is a species worth? According to a recent ruling by the supreme court, the cheetah is not worth its price tag of Rs300 crore. Some government departments might invest that amount in drinking water schemes for an entire district, but the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) and other interested parties proposed to use the money to relive a royal dream. This involved bringing back the majestic cheetah that was wiped away from the face of modern India, but the nightmare began when the dream was to be turned into reality. The issue of cheetah reintroduction was contentious from inception, and the lack of a well formulated, transparent plan of action made it even more so. These factors, along with the verdict on May 7, 2012, have helped raise several questions about how conservation, wildlife and species are viewed by lawmakers and the central government.

The green bench of the supreme court highlighted an interesting issue while halting the proposed reintroduction. They questioned the very premise of trying to reintroduce extinct and exotic species. Over 50 years after the cheetah-less country evolved, and especially given the new turn of economic development since the 1990s, is India’s population ready to handle another large carnivore? The MoEF tried to answer this question by commissioning a study through the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in 2010. A rapid ecological and social field survey at 10 sites across five states employed five researchers and two scientists for three months. None of the researchers involved were trained social scientists, and the miniscule timeline prevented the collection of useful ecological data, with the result that important factors such as prey abundance had to be borrowed from five-year-old data. While the study was intended to be the first pass and was to be followed by more intensive work, the latter did not matter, given that relocation decisions were being based on the first study.

Cheetahs in Kuno-Palpur
One of the main recommendations of the study was that the Kuno-Palpur wildlife sanctuary could house the new cheetah population. The ecological basis for this decision is questionable given the logistic difficulties faced by the WII research team in the sanctuary, which prevented them from collecting data crucial to this decision. On the other hand, the sanctuary and its people were already “prepared” to receive another large cat; the Asiatic lion. Since the Gujarat government had gone as far as to reject the Iranian government’s offer to exchange a few Asiatic cheetahs for Asiatic lions, despite interventions from the centre, the chances of populating Madhya Pradesh with lions were pretty slim. Rather than waste the investment into the sanctuary, it would make political and economic sense to introduce another large carnivore.

Cheetahs once ranged as far south as Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, but were most famously abundant in central and western India. As animals of the plains, they prefer large open spaces, where they can reach the speeds that put them in record books. Each individual cheetah requires between 120 and 200 sq km in order to survive in Africa, even when there is an abundance of prey species. The Kuno-Palpur sanctuary is about 347 sq km with steep hilly terrain in the west that is dominated by scrubby vegetation. The eastern side is flatter and is connected to the Panna tiger reserve, a recent hotbed of big cat poaching, through the Shivpuri forest. The terrain would limit the cheetah’s survival on one side of the sanctuary and hunting would limit survival on the other. This is compounded by the fact that the cheetah’s favourite prey — the blackbuck, an antelope, and the chinkara, a gazelle — are virtually absent from the area.

Based on the recommendations of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for reintroduction, the case for the cheetah in Madhya Pradesh fell short of meeting every objective of reintroduction: long-term population survival, re-establishing keystone species, restoring biodiversity and promoting economic or conservation awareness benefits. While the cheetah was an important thread in the cultural fabric of Mughal and Rajput royalty, it was not an ecological keystone, since its demise did not trigger significant cascades of ecological consequences typically associated with keystone species. Apart from gracing royal courts and being used for sport, the cheetah’s relationship with the average cowherd or shepherd in India has been one of kill or have your livestock killed. Even in Africa, domestic livestock make up a large part of the cheetah’s diet when available. Thus, rather than promote conservation ideals, the introduction of the cheetah, a potential livestock killer, could only amplify problems of human-wildlife conflict.

What makes a cheetah Indian?
The arguments made in the supreme court seemed to focus less on the practicalities of humans having to live alongside cheetahs and more on the philosophy of reintroducing a lost species. The patriotic Indian cheetah is expected to have India in its blood, stand up for the rights of all other grassland species and remain courteous to the Indian shepherd. The reintroduced cheetah, however, will have none of these qualities. Despite enormous scientific debates about what genetic differences make species, the supreme court chose to draw the line at African cheetahs. The African cheetahs cannot be expected to have Indian values of respect for tradition, and therefore must behave very differently. Since the only records of Indian cheetahs are glowing accounts of captive animals from royal history and art, there is no baseline for comparison.

African cheetahs may differ enough from the Asiatic that they may not survive Indian conditions. This does not exclude the possibility that the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cell and Molecular Biology’s dream, a cloned Asiatic cheetah, will also be unable to survive the harsh conditions of modern India. After having spent several crores on implementing a nationwide search for suitable habitat and visiting potential release animals in Africa, there is still no visible effort or court directive to plan the effective rehabilitation of cheetahs, whether African or Asiatic, and get them ready to survive in a setting like Kuno-Palpur.

The tradition of including scientific advice
The National Board of Wildlife is a panel of wildlife experts and enthusiasts set up to advise the MoEF on matters such as cheetah reintroduction. The fact that their inputs were neither sought nor included in the entire process reflects badly on the working of the ministry as a whole. The fact that none of these wildlife experts would be able to legally contest their exclusion from the process, or the lack of suitable scientific information that went into the decision-making, makes a mockery of the whole system of wildlife conservation in the country. The only reason that the supreme court was able to step in and pass judgment was because the issue of lions versus cheetahs in Kuno-Palpur had become a political debate between Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

Locals and wildlife researchers alike can breathe a sigh of relief that an ill-thought-out decision to reintroduce cheetahs has been halted. However, given that it was not stopped for the right reasons, there is every chance that the project will reappear in some form in the future. Should conservation decisions in India play out entirely in the political field, rather than legally include sound ecological and social advice? Are there ways to legally mandate that the decisions which have the capacity to involve such large sums of money and impact so many people have to be based on studies of good quality? Hopefully, India’s pathway to wildlife conservation will be unlike its history of environmentally destructive decisions feeding off poorly conducted environment impact assessments. If the supreme court could use this opportunity to require quality inputs from well-planned studies, before considering any future case of reintroduction, the cheetah will be worth every paisa.




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