Dust kicked up from pounding paws racing across the Indian grasslands, a flash of spots and the white of a tail as a large cat speeds past, the thrill of chasing leaping blackbuck across fields of gold; all images closely linked to Indian royal heritage. Coursing cheetahs are as much a part of the rich tapestry of Indian Mughal art and culture as their architecture, which now typifies many of India’s monuments. Hailing from that great and noble age, the cheetahs unfortunately did not survive into the modern era. The capture of many cheetahs from the wild for sport and their inability to breed in captivity are believed to have contributed most significantly to their decline. As the royal pastime of coursing cheetahs grew, it sounded the death knell for its most important player, the cheetah that is believed to have chased its last wild Indian prey in the 1960s.
As the memory of the cheetah faded away in people’s minds, the name soon came to be associated with a distantly related spotted relative, the leopard. The grasslands faded and diminished under the hooves of a thousand cattle, they were tilled and ploughed until only a few scattered remnants were preserved in the form of wildlife sanctuaries. These rangelands of the cheetah which once spread as far south as the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, are now largely confined to Central and Western India, as pockets, the largest of which has about 600 sq. km of suitable remnant habitat. Despite being extremely productive agricultural and pasture land, these dry grasslands fell into neglect. The herald of the grasslands’ fate, the extinct cheetah was mourned in a few pockets of its former range and in the high echelons of the government as a conservation tragedy. Beyond the rhetoric there was little action, and many wildlife enthusiasts gave up the cause as lost.
The millennium proved to be a turning point for the species, the Centre for Cell and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad proposed to clone and reintroduce the cheetah, provided that they could access Iranian cheetahs for genetic samples. Following Iran’s refusal, the plans fell through and the proponents of cheetah reintroduction fell silent, biding their time till the political climate turned favourable. Fair weather seems to have set in during the historical second term of the UPA government and several groups led by NGOs such as the Wildlife Trust of India have attempted to revive reintroduction efforts. Under the ‘green’ regime of Jairam Ramesh, these efforts have come closer to bearing fruit than ever before.
After failed negotiations with Iran due to the precarious situation of their cheetahs, a decision to bring individuals from Africa was taken. Each animal will be shipped in and rehabilitated at a whopping cost of close to Rs 2 crore. Ramesh justified the proposal by comparing the role of the cheetahs to other flag ship species such as the tiger or the Gangetic River dolphin. The obvious implication is that the other flagships have benefited from their status. This assumption, despite the cash flow in the names of these animals, is not corroborated by any evidence. Given the history of problems with the conservation of high profile species despite their political nomenclature, the need to introduce this ‘star’ grassland species is questionable. The more pertinent question is whether India is ready to host its expensive guests.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests directed the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun to study the ecological and socio-economic feasibility of the cheetah reintroduction. In characteristic fashion amidst potentially brief political support, the survey was rapid, to be followed by more detailed studies of shortlisted sites. WII was assigned the task of surveying 10 sites in three months to identify both environmental and social tolerance towards cheetahs. For a project worth 65 million US dollars with the potential to affect hundreds of communities living near the chosen sites, the decision on probable location of reintroduction was to be based on surveys completed in the span of a couple of months. The capacity of WII to handle this mammoth task was debatable as their team consisted only of half a dozen people, of which only a few were trained wildlife biologists and there were no recognized sociologists in the group.
A report on this survey was released in 2010, but much to the chagrin of interested parties there was a lot lacking in Indian grasslands. One of the most important findings of this study was that none of the surveyed sites had populations of prey that could support a reasonable population of cheetahs. All wildlife sanctuaries had evidence of human presence and use. Most sanctuaries were small and scattered, and the only one large enough to support a relatively stable cheetah population was mostly under the control of the border security forces and off-limits to civilians except for a few nomadic tribes. However, the study undermined its own value by twisting the findings into projections of potential for cheetahs. Unrealistic assumptions about prey multiplication, the lack of detailed habitat assessment in terms of vegetation structure suitability, the fact that the biology and home range needs of cheetahs were not really taken into consideration, and the tendency to overlook serious long term consequences of livestock lifting by cheetahs, makes the report unfit to guide government policies.
Other issues plague the report including gaping lacunae in the reasoning behind choice of preferred sites. One of the most favoured sites, Kuno-Palpur was chosen based on prey abundances that were estimated around five years ago. While it could be likely, as the report claims, that the park is well protected and that ungulates are more likely to have increased since then, the history of illegal poaching in our parks requires the claim to be backed by evidence, which in this case, is lacking. Further, the occurrence of conflict between the communities and existing wildlife in that area is already documented.
Outside problems with the WII report, larger troubles loom overhead. There has been no recent follow-up to this report in terms of a defined plan of action or time scale. Beyond a meeting with global cheetah experts in 2009, there is no clear direction to the government’s plans. The most pressing concern that afflicts most large scale projects in India i.e. mode of implementation, is yet to be dealt with and this certainly requires serious and careful consideration. Reintroduction is a long-term commitment that cannot be subject to political upheavals or whims of an individual. The decisions taken in this regime need to outlast the current minister and efforts need to be made to ensure dedication to the task in future. If we are to justify the proposed expense for this project at the cost of other channels for the same money, there needs to be a clear goal that is ecologically, socially and economically sound. The goal has to be reinforced by practical methodology that realizes the objective. Hence commitment from several rungs of the government is essential, starting from the MoEF, percolating into the bureaucracy and the Forest Department (FD).
The FD is a multi-layered hierarchy and decisions made at the top are often modified by the time they filter into the lower rungs. While individual quirks are to blame for some of these misinterpretations, on-ground judgments are also tempered by local pressures and conditions. Field staff have to deal with angry villagers or unreasonable mobs forcing them into courses of action that might be in apparent contradiction with set protocol. These events unfold in isolation from law enforcement and untrained ground staff bear the brunt of ill-thought out national-level decisions.
In an atmosphere where our bureaucratic hierarchy is not flexible enough to deal with these situations, it is hardly likely that we can create a situation more conducive for the cheetahs than it is for tigers or elephants. In comparison to other large cats, the cheetah may appear tame, but it kills its fair share of livestock causing a serious amount of damage to farmers in Africa. WII’s report acknowledges this fact by bluntly stating that while wild prey might not be in the appropriate abundances to support cheetahs, it is offset by the numbers of livestock at the suggested locations, which will form a part of the relocated cheetah’s diet. One can assume that the communities that participated in WII’s socio-economic survey were not asked for opinions on this detail. Until the implementing agency, the FD, is properly trained to manage such social problems that could arise due to cheetah reintroduction, the entire project is doomed. Already several tribals and villagers having faced harassment both from wildlife and the FD have resorted to setting fire to parks and poisoning wildlife in retaliation. Adding a new source of conflict into this already volatile situation is unlikely to produce the required results.
If the cheetah does manage to survive intrusions by people and livestock, retaliatory killings and low prey densities, its inability to breed in the face of such disturbances might render the venture a disaster. Indian historical records show that cheetahs were always notoriously delicate and difficult to breed. The lack of a healthy breeding population will result in the animals still being considered almost extinct in ecological terms. Even small fast breeding animals such as the American black footed ferret needed at least seven years of captive breeding before the authorities felt comfortable about releasing them into the wild to establish a viable population. For animals that take longer to mature, the time needed to establish a good breeding program is likely to be at least double that of the ferrets. Thus far there does not seem to be any effort on the part of the MoEF to establish such a long-term program in India.
Given all these drawbacks, it is highly likely that any effort to reintroduce the cheetah without suitable planning, consultations with locals, and training of forest staff and zoos, will result in the second extinction of cheetahs from the Indian subcontinent. While the idea of reintroducing this large, charismatic animals to an ecosystem in dire need of a savior sounds ideal and romantic, the practicalities of this plan warrant that it be given serious thought before implementation. The grasslands in India definitely need attention, not notoriety. The government should therefore think of the long term consequences of living with large cats, rather than bask in the short term glories of revival of a species that bears memories of India’s royal heritage.