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Why the return of the cheetah is a powerful symbol

The import of African cheetahs shows how somewhat tame, beautiful animals can be co-opted by statecraft

Eight African cheetahs are being brought to India.
Eight African cheetahs are being brought to India. (Istockphoto)

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Lost things have a unique charm. We often acknowledge that our memory has holes but we hold fond memories of things we have lost.

One of the rooms in our palace of losses is that of the cheetah in India—that beautiful, sprightly animal whose very name is derived from Sanskrit. An animal viewed as independent India’s first major extinction, big enough to be remembered but too small to be a threat to people.

On his birthday this year on 17 September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will welcome eight African cheetahs to India. Having lost the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) at the time of our independence (the last recorded hunt was in 1947), the animal is now a potent symbol of nostalgia.

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And extinction engenders nostalgia. We mourn the extinction of the Mauritian dodo, once laughed at for being dumb, and the North American Passenger pigeon, a symbol of overabundance. There are sophisticated plans to “bring back” from their genes the woolly mammoth (an animal that predates written record) and the Tasmanian tiger (hunted to extinction, declared protected as late as 59 days before the death of the last individual in 1936).

Bringing back the cheetah is different, though, because it is institutionalised in our memories not just as beautiful but also as tame and familiar. Docility has great allure—it marks the dog as different from the dhole. Though wild, cheetahs were easily made pets and appear in many Mughal paintings (and African art) as the consorts of kings and as efficient and controllable hunting companions. Divyabhanusinh and Raza Kazmi, in an article in the Journal Of The Bombay Natural History Society (2019), note the presence of cheetahs in cave paintings in the Upper Chambal valley in Madhya Pradesh (c. 2500 BCE). In India, people remember conflicts with big cats like tigers and leopards but not with cheetahs.

The cheetah’s coming is framed as a nostalgia-tinged “reintroduction” in governmental press releases. The animals being brought are the Southeast African Cheetahs, a different subspecies from the Asiatic one. Since both animals inhabit a similar ecological niche, it’s assumed that this may not harm our wildlife. Still, this is not “our” cheetah, though it is being constructed as such.

This narrative is shot through with ideas of control and familiarity. Instead of being allowed to run “wild”, the animals will be brought to the tightly controlled Kuno National Park (Madhya Pradesh) in plywood crates from Namibia and later from South Africa. They will initially be fenced in for 30 days, and if there are serial-escapees, for longer.

The coming of the animal also brings its own dark humour. Conservationists (me included) believe the joke is on us. In 2013, the Supreme Court asked Gujarat to move Asiatic lions to the Kuno National Park and sought the latter’s restoration. Though lions are in relatively large numbers (600-plus), the Gir landscape is the very last place that holds them. In ecological terms then, Asiatic lions face serious threats of endangerment, and would do better if they were in more diverse habitat. But Gujarat said the lions were theirs, and never complied.  

So now, the area meant for lions will hold cheetahs. But for this to happen, other big cats had to be removed first. Leopards had entered the cheetah enclosures and were driven out with the help of Indian elephants. Other animals will be involved too: According to the action plan, horses and camels are to be stationed so the forest department can approach shy cheetahs on horse- or camel-back. It’s like the ruling party of lions got ousted by a coalition of cheetahs (and leopards).

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Yet other cats need spotlights too. While conducting research in Rajasthan’s Sariska Tiger Reserve in 2011, I asked villagers who their favourite animal was.

Going deep in the woods to bring back dry wood and fodder, villagers saw a bewildering array of wild animals every day. One respondent, a man aged about 70, described a strange animal. A golden-brown cat, which was not small but also not huge, he said, with remarkable, pricked-up ears that ended in tufts. The syahgosh. The caracal, which is now extinct from Sariska and is slowly disappearing from its range. Younger respondents didn’t know of the caracal.

In contrast, the cheetah still lives in verbal accounts. When talking to people after a leopard was spotted in 2016 in Wazirabad, Delhi, a village elder said the animal in question was a cheetah. Outside Madhya Pradesh’s Pench Tiger Reserve, another villager told me he had seen a spotted cheetah (it was a striped hyena).

From figures of speech, the cheetah will now literally enter our lives. In the way that giant pandas have been used by China as state symbols, the cheetah demonstrates how somewhat tame and unerringly beautiful animals can be co-opted by statecraft.

The African-cheetah-becoming-Indian could be an important conservation story, but only if the animal is used to co-produce a different meaning of landscape. Grasslands and scrublands are languishing today in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. Entire swathes could be consolidated for cheetah and grassland conservation.

Further, the energy around the perceived loss of the extinct should be used for many other animals. The great Indian bustard and the Indian wolf, both creatures of scrubland like cheetahs, are doing badly. Gyps vultures—Indian, slender-billed and white-rumped—are imperilled by the illegal use of diclofenac in livestock. Jerdon’s Courser, a scrubland bird, may already be extinct. The pangolin, a quiet, nocturnal anteater, is being unlawfully hunted on a massive scale.

None of these animals are tame or wildly well-known but then that isn’t the point of conservation.

While there are many dark portents for the incoming cheetahs, such as the real threat of stray dogs that hunt larger animals, this is also a reminder of the dazzling and dynamic biodiversity we have left. An area the cheetah can live in has leopards loping in. You may see a Steppe eagle, a magnificent bird of prey with a candy-yellow and granite-grey beak that comes all the way from the Central Asian steppes. If managed well, you may hear the reverberation of the great Indian bustard’s hoom-hoom call.

The cheetah shows us the popular power of the symbol. When mediated with nostalgia, this becomes a confection that can move mountains (or, at least, government files). We love what we have lost, but I also hope we lose no more.

The narrative being built is that the cheetah’s wild heart—one designed to withstand races that feel like flight—wants to “come home”, a feline “ghar wapsi”. I want the same for those we still have left, too.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of  Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species.

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