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Bringing the Lost Cheetah Back to India – But at What Cost?

These sand dunes in the Thar Desert in India are one of identified sites for cheetah reintroduction. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS Credit:  Malini Shankar/IPS

These sand dunes in the Thar Desert in India are one of identified sites for cheetah reintroduction. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

BANGALORE, Apr 11 2012 (IPS) - On Monday, the Indian Supreme Court declined to call a scheduled hearing of the Federal Ministry of Environment and Forests regarding plans to reintroduce African cheetahs, which were declared extinct in 1952 as a result of over-hunting by India’s nobility, into 10 identified sites in north and central India by May 2012.

The proposed hearing was a result of objections filed by the state of Gujarat about the Indian government’s decision to undertake Project Cheetah, armed with a budget of 58 million dollars, to restore the animal’s ‘lost heritage’ in the country.

“The cheetah is the only large carnivore that has been extirpated, mainly by over-hunting in India in historical times. India now has the economic ability to consider restoring its lost natural heritage for ethical as well as ecological reasons,” according to the study ‘Assessing the Potential for Reintroducing the Cheetah in India’ compiled by Y.V. Jhala, carnivore biologist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and M. K. Ranjitsinh, of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).

The WII-WTI joint study assesses 10 sites from seven landscapes located in five states – Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – for their potential to harbour viable cheetah populations.

“In the first phase of reintroduction 10 – 15 individual animals will be brought into each of the three sites and then supplemented every two to five years as needed. Overall about 45 cheetahs will be reintroduced. This year the budget allocation is 351,000 (dollars). A large part of the cost is for habitat restoration and voluntary relocation of villagers with good incentives on par with Project Tiger. The cheetahs are being donated by the Cheetah Conservation Foundation of Namibia,” Jhala told IPS.

The Government of India initiated its own study back in 2009, which recommended importing healthy populations of cheetah from both Africa and Iran to sustain the gene pool for the long-term conservation of the species, provided that landscape and habitat conservation, as well as relocation of human settlements, go on simultaneously as planned.

The WII-WTI study reasons that the cheetah’s presence will restore degraded habitats where its prey base – black bucks, deer and hare – thrive.

According to Jhala, “The cheetah was a major component of the ecological process that shaped the communities of India. The speed of the chinkara and blackbuck evolved directly due to predation pressure by the cheetah. It was also a top predator in several ecosystems within India especially in the arid and semi arid grassland scrub systems, but it also flourished in dry and open forest systems along with other large carnivores like the leopard, lion, and tiger.”

Semi arid scrub jungles, sand dunes and grasslands are characteristic ecosystems in the 10 identified sites of reintroduction.

The project was all set to take place from March to May but the Supreme Court hearing posed an unexpected hurdle.

Now, it appears the case is yet again “on hold”, but the controversy continues unabated.

Too many cats, too little space

The Gujarat government strongly opposes cheetah reintroduction because one of the identified sites – the Kuno Palpur wildlife sanctuary – is also the identified site for relocation of some of the Asiatic Lions from Gujarat, where they are overpopulated in the limited confines of Gir National Park.

Kuno has other wild cats including tigers and leopards all of which relocated or migrated naturally from their original habitats. Gujarat contends that so many wild cats cannot coexist and compete for the same scarce prey.

Since the lion is considered the “pride” of Gujarat, the state government has strongly resisted Project Cheetah and found unlikely support among conservationists who oppose reintroduction of an already extinct species, and instead wish to channel all available resources towards conservation of the tiger.

Cheetah reintroduction is only a distraction from the tiger crisis, they aver.

“The cheetah reintroduction project is poorly conceived scientifically and has very little probability of establishing a viable population of wild cheetahs in India over the longer term. It therefore is a distraction and waste of scarce conservation resources,” says wildlife biologist Ullas Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bangalore.

Despite a concerted effort to safeguard endangered tigers, “we are continuing to lose the tiger in many reserves (and) habitats,” Praveen Bhargav, of Bangalore’s Wildlife First, told IPS.

“The WII recommendations on securing scientifically identified high-priority landscapes are not being implemented due to conflicts with other development ministries. Furthermore, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs is refusing to acknowledge the negative impacts caused by hyper-stretching the implementation of the Forest Rights Act. Throwing in the cheetah in this complex cauldron of conflicts is a sure recipe for disaster,” he warned.

India has seven other wildcat species: the caracal, jungle cat, Asian wild cat, leopard cat, clouded leopard, rusty spotted cat and snow leopard, leading many to question why importing cheetahs is taking precedence over preservation of local species.

“(Project Cheetah) is not intended to undermine the conservation of other species but we need to do both: conserve tigers, lions, as well as bring in cheetahs that have become extinct due to humans. It is our moral and ethical obligation to restore our lands, recently lost biological heritage. India now has the economic ability to restore its lost heritage,” argued Jhala.

The 2009 government study cites the primary risk factor in the operation as human-animal conflict.

“However, today this landscape is characterised by low prey densities, probably due to poaching by tribal communities that reside within the protected areas,” it said, a situation that will only be exacerbated by the presence of yet another hunter, looking for food. Relocation as a wildlife management technique is a successful experiment in many parts of Africa where habitats are shrinking but wildlife population is increasing, as strict vigils deter poachers.

But others believe that cheetahs are so fragile that it would be safer to breed them in captivity in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Reintroducing them to the wilderness has proved in the past to be a traumatic experiment, since they are, by temperament, as pusillanimous as domestic pet cats and are not known to battle with other big cats like lions. At least in Africa, the cheetahs are familiar with lions, but they have absolutely no experience coexisting with tigers, which they will be forced to do in India.

Wild cats of different families normally cannot coexist. In the aftermath of the massacre of all 22 tigers in India’s premier Sariska Tiger Reserve, the leopard population exploded. Cheetah reintroduction could easily usher in unknown consequences. A project that lacks the support of sufficient wildlife psychology research is tantamount to gambling tax-payers’ many in a costly venture that could be disastrous for all the populations involved.

Without addressing the basic malaise that was responsible for the slaughter of the precious Sariska tigers – human-animal conflict – reintroducing cheetahs could be reduced to an exotic wildlife experiment, at the risk of grave damages.

Leading thinkers in the field believe India would do well to conserve its political will and scarce resources to safeguard the habitat and gene pool of the remaining tigers and lions, before bringing in a whole new beast altogether.

*Malini Shankar is a wildlife photojournalist and filmmaker based in Bangalore

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