The cheetah—that ferociously quick predator, the fastest land animal in the world—is set to return to India after 70 years. Yet conservationists are wary, questioning the idea of introducing a subspecies that is alien to India amidst so many other pressing challenges.
The animals that are to be brought to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh will not be from the Asiatic subspecies (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) that once roamed the country’s grasslands, semi-arid and desert regions. They will instead be from the African subspecies that looks different and is used to a different habitat and prey base. The Asiatic cheetah is smaller, thinner and slightly paler in colour than its African counterpart. It has a smaller head, shorter legs and a much thicker coat.
Known as “hunting leopards” during the colonial era, Asiatic cheetahs were wiped out in India by hunting, a gradual decline in prey base and habitat degradation. The last cheetah was shot in 1947 and it was officially declared extinct in India in 1952. Today just about 40-50 individuals survive in central Iran, where it’s a protected animal. The IUCN lists it as a critically endangered species.
Globally, cheetahs are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with around 6,674 individuals, most of them in Africa, left.
Plans to reintroduce cheetahs to the Indian landscape were first mooted in the 1970s and have been brought up off and on since. These included plans to exchange Asiatic cheetahs for Asiatic lions with Iran, and, in 2009, even cloning the animals. In January last year, the Supreme Court allowed the Union government to bring the African cheetah to India. This September, the Union environment ministry said cheetahs from South Africa and Namibia would reach Kuno in four-six months.
At present, the ground is being prepared. Prey and habitat status is being monitored, disease profiling is being undertaken, and enclosures are being created for the soft release of the animals. In South Africa and Namibia, the animals are being identified and their health profiles finalised.
Experts, however, are concerned about the complexities of introducing a different subspecies to new ecological settings, biodiversity issues and disease risks, and whether there’s enough space at the chosen site for a big cat like the cheetah to survive and establish a healthy habitat. “The bigger question for me is: What are we trying to do?” asks Ravi Chellam, wildlife biologist and CEO, Metastring Foundation, and member, Biodiversity Collaborative, on the phone. "Is it a conservation priority for the country, given that we have so many more pressing challenges for species that are already found in India?"
In an interview with Lounge last year, Kim Young-Overton, KAZA programme director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation, had said the proposal to reintroduce the cheetah to India was an exciting opportunity to reinstate an important component of the country’s savanna and woodland biodiversity. KAZA refers to the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area in southern Africa, home to roughly 20% of the global cheetah population.
Young-Overton explained that the prospect of reintroducing cheetahs to India using the Asiatic subspecies as the source population, and meeting all the other prerequisites, was ecologically exciting. But using another subspecies (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus, as currently planned) would be “less desirable” since it would contribute neither to the maintenance of genetic diversity nor to the conservation of the Asiatic subspecies. Moreover, she had said, India’s keenness to restore grasslands and savannas, using the cheetah as a flagship species, would be better served by the Asiatic cheetah.
Grasslands are an important part of this debate. The cheetah, described as a low-density, high-habitat animal, requires a substantial amount of space. “The space requirement for carnivores depends on the resources that are available to them," says Chellam. "If there is a high prey density area, the space that would be required would be relatively lesser. But if there is lower prey density, the space requirement would be much higher. For example, lion home ranges can range in size from up to 1,000 sq. km down to about 100. sq. km. Lions are group-living animals, as sometimes cheetahs can be,” Chellam adds.
According to a technical note released in August by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Kuno was considered for cheetah reintroduction in 2010. The location has also been regularly monitored since 2006 for lion reintroduction. The national park has diverse habitats conducive for both lions and cheetahs—with open woodlands, savanna, dry deciduous forests and evergreen riverine forests—and is also part of the Sheopur-Shivpuri forests, which cover around 6,800 sq. km.
S.P. Yadav, member secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the government body overseeing the plan, says Kuno has a large inviolate habitat and a good prey base, making it an optimal location. A management system (for the animals) is already in place, says Yadav on email, and the location has the backing of experts from South Africa, Namibia and the WII. The first six-eight cheetahs are expected in early 2022, says Yadav. Apart from the NTCA, WII and the forest department of Madhya Pradesh are also part of this project.
The WII note also lists a variety of animals as part of the prey base—chital, nilgais, sambar, chinkara and wild pigs, among others. Chellam, however, points out that the cheetah cannot take large prey. “The African setting typically has prey species which are very different from what they will have to learn to hunt in India. An adult sambar, for instance, would be too big for cheetahs to handle. It would potentially prey on chital, chinkaras or young nilgais and sambar,” he says. “Even though the forest block is very large, at least by Indian standards, a lot of the habitat is not suitable for the cheetah. We also don’t know how long these animals have been in captivity. This tends to change their wild behaviour and instincts. Once you bring them out, how do you ensure they become independent animals, that too in a novel habitat?”
The risk from diseases is a worry. While the animals being brought will likely be vaccinated against rabies and canine-transmitted diseases, cheetahs, like other carnivores, will be at risk of exposure to the canine distemper virus, feline infectious peritonitis (caused by a feline coronavirus) and feline leukaemia virus (FeLV), particularly in captive conditions, says Abi T. Vanak, senior fellow and associate professor, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru. In an emailed response, Vanak, who focuses on animal movement ecology, disease ecology and savanna ecosystems, says the stress of new and unfamiliar conditions could lead to “greater susceptibility” to such infections.
Newer diseases among cheetahs have also come to light. Recently, researchers described the first reported case of anthrax in wildlife in the Namib Desert in southern Africa, where an infected zebra was likely the cause of the deaths of three cheetahs.
The cheetah is a fragile species, notoriously difficult to breed. Leading tiger expert and veteran conservation zoologist Ullas Karanth says that much as he would love to see the animal back in the wild, the whole process needs more clarity and transparency. “In best protected habitats, cheetahs reach average densities of two-four animals per 100 sq. km. A demographically viable population of, say, 100 cheetahs will require over 5,000 sq. km of habitat free of humans, feral dogs, leopards, wolves and tigers,” says Karanth. “Releasing the cheetahs before creating such a space would be akin to putting a cart before the horse.”
“In this case, it’s even more complicated,” says Chellam. “Are we somehow wanting to live in the past by bringing back a species which has not been there for at least seven decades? Because it is important for Indian ecology and conservation to be forward-looking to meet the challenges of the future.”