During a much-publicised event held on his birthday on September 17, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released eight cheetahs brought from Namibia in special enclosures in the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh.
This is the first time cheetahs moved from one continent to another and were reintroduced to the wild.
Until they became extinct in 1947, cheetahs roamed most of India. Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Korea, Madhya Pradesh, is said to have killed the last three cheetahs in the country in 1947.
However, it was not till 1952 that the Indian government officially declared the cheetah extinct in the country.
Mughal emperor Akbar, who ruled from 1556 to 1605, is supposed to have had 1,000 cheetahs in his kingdom. These animals were used for hunting blackbucks and gazelles. But, according to Divyabhanusinh, the former vice-president of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), the Indian cheetah population came down to a few hundred because of too much hunting.
So around 200 were imported from Africa in ships by some princes between 1918 and 1945, he says.
Bringing cheetahs into India has been under discussion for several decades. There was also a proposal in 2005 by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, to clone an Asiatic cheetah. But Iran, where the cheetah is dwindling, refused to share an animal.
The first proposal to introduce the African cheetah was floated in 2009 by the Congress government. But, in 2012, the Supreme Court stayed the Environment Ministry’s project to bring the African cheetahs to Kuno.
In 2017, the National Tiger Conservation Authority again revived the proposal and appealed to the Supreme Court to “clarify its order.” In 2010, the Environment Ministry also put together a plan recommending locations in India suitable for the cheetah and sourcing cheetahs from Africa. Finally, in 2020, the Supreme Court removed its bar on importing the cheetah and allowed it in on an experimental basis. This paved the way for the first batch of cheetahs.
Congress can’t see but politics in cheetah
As Modi released the cheetahs on his birthday, the Congress party could not but see politics and refused to give up its claim for the project. It declared that Modi must not get credit because the proposal for ‘Project Cheetah’ was prepared by the Manmohan Singh-led government in 2008-09. The then Union minister for forest and environment Jairam Ramesh had also gone to the Cheetah Outreach Centre in Africa in 2010. The Congress said, but for the efforts of its government 14 years ago, the cheetahs could not have arrived in India.
Officials say, on the other hand, Modi acted fast once the Supreme Court’s stay on importing cheetahs was vacated. India signed a pact with Namibia in July for the re-introduction of cheetahs.
Releasing the cheetah, Modi said it was unfortunate that we declared cheetahs extinct from the country in 1952, but no meaningful effort was made for decades to rehabilitate them. “Now the country is committed to rehabilitating cheetahs with new energy in the ‘Amrit Kaal’ of independence. ‘Amrit’ (nectar) has the power to revive even the dead.”
The PM said, since the formation of his government in 2014, about 250 new protected areas have been added in the country. There has also been a significant increase in the number of Asiatic lions here. Today, Gujarat has emerged as an important habitat of Asiatic lions in the country.
“We have also achieved the target of doubling the number of tigers in the country ahead of time. Once, the existence of one-horned rhinoceros was threatened in Assam, but today their numbers have also increased. The number of elephants has also increased to more than 30,000 in the last few years. Another major work that has been done in the country from the point of view of nature and the environment is the expansion of wetlands. Today 75 wetlands in the country have been declared as Ramsar sites, of which 26 sites have been included in the last four years. The impact of these efforts on the country will be visible for centuries to come and will pave new paths for progress,” the PM said.
Controversy over cheetahs
In all, 8 cheetahs — five females and four males — from Namibia’s capital Windhoek reached the Jaipur airport on the morning of September 17. Later, the animals were flown by helicopters to their new home. More cheetahs from Namibia are expected to come to India in the coming years. An estimate says the national park can house as many as 21 cheetahs and, if necessary efforts are made, it can even hold 36 of them.
But the big question is what are the benefits of bringing cheetahs from Africa to India?
One argument is that reintroducing cheetahs into the wild would benefit biodiversity and ecosystem services, including preserving grasslands. Secondly, the presence of cheetahs in Kuno could boost local tourism, with potential economic benefits for local communities. Lastly, it will be a mark of national pride in the 75th year of Independence.
But many conservationists, however, feel the project is risky. They say Kuno park is not ideal for cheetahs. Once released in the wild, the cheetahs may not be able to compete for food with leopards and hyenas. Also, Kuno is not all grassland for the cheetahs to sprint across and hunt for prey.
On the other hand, the government believes that the African Cheetahs will adapt due to the similarity in habitat. Also, enough safeguards are there to ensure the cheetahs adjust to Kuno, which is spread over 748 square kilometres. It is also without any human settlements and very close to the Sal forests of Koriya, now in Chhattisgarh, where the native Asiatic Cheetah was last spotted almost 70 years ago.
Why Cheetahs in Kuno park and not lions?
Significantly, Kuno was also originally intended as a second home for the Asiatic lions in Gir. But the Gujarat government opposed the transfer of lions to Madhya Pradesh. That is why many conservationists are upset that, despite the Supreme Court setting a six-month deadline for shifting lions to Kuno in April 2013, nothing has happened. Even a contempt case was dismissed in 2018 after the state government assured the Supreme Court that its order would be followed.
That is why Madhya Pradesh Congress chief Kamal Nath has said the cheetahs were brought to Kuno to“divert the attention” of people from the refusal of the authorities in Gujarat to shift the Gir lions to the facility. He said, when he was CM, Kuno was readied for lions, but the Gujarat government did not release them.
Some officials, however, say the cheetah project is still open to the introduction of lions to Kuno after the cheetah population settles down. Kuno can be home to four large cats in India — tiger, lion, leopard and cheetah — and they can coexist as they did in the past.
But why should Gir lions have a second home outside Gujarat? Those who favour it fear more than 600 lions might face danger if a disease breaks out there. Since 2018, dozens of lions in Gir have died from diseases. Therefore, setting up a second wild lion population in Kuno is vital for their survival.
Big test for Modi?
Ultimately, the big test for the cheetah project is that the introduced cheetahs must survive and reproduce in five years.
Of course, a lot of care is being taken. The cheetahs are radio-collared. Their movements will be tracked. Each animal has their dedicated tracking team. A team of wildlife scientists and biologists led by Laurie Marker, a renowned zoologist and founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, is at the spot. Nevertheless, it is a bold initiative for which Modi has taken the risk. If the cheetahs thrive, he will get the credit. But if they don’t, the opposition will not spare him.
(The author is a senior journalist and a well-known political commentator)