Noida: “It is a challenging project but it is worth trying [rather] than saying it is difficult and not doing it at all,” M K Ranjitsinh, a retired Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer and the former director of Wildlife Preservation, told IndiaSpend, on the plan to introduce the African cheetah to India.

After being hunted extensively, cheetahs were declared locally extinct in India in 1952.

On January 28, 2020, the Supreme Court (SC) ordered that African cheetahs be introduced “on an experimental basis in a careful [sic] chosen habitat and nurtured to see whether it can adapt to the Indian conditions”. The order was in response to an application filed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority seeking permission to “re-introduce cheetahs from Africa to suitable sites in India”.

“It would focus attention on the conservation of our neglected grasslands and our open forests just like tiger conservation has led to the protection of our forested national parks and sanctuaries,” the NTCA had noted in the application. “It would also enable the conservation of such gravely endangered species occurring only in grasslands and open forests, such as the wolf, desert cat, desert fox and the great Indian bustard.”

This experiment will be guided by a committee of experts, headed by Ranjitsinh, who is also the principal author of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

“When I was drafting the Wildlife [Protection] Act, they said it couldn’t be done. It was done,” Ranjitsinh said. “When we started Project Crocodile, they said it is very difficult… again, it was done. When we started Project Tiger, there were people who were pessimistic but it was done. So, challenges are there but they have to be met and what matters is political support--at both the Central and the State level.”

IndiaSpend spoke with Ranjitsinh about the reasons for the introduction of the African cheetah, sites in Africa from where the cheetah could be transported, potential sites in India for the introduction and more. Edited excerpts:

The biggest motivation for this plan seems to be the hope that cheetahs will act as a flagship species for conserving India’s grasslands and the various other species that inhabit such grasslands. Could you elaborate on this?

Restoration of a species is the restoration of an ecosystem. This same method was used in the case of tigers, snow leopards and crocodiles. In the process of conserving these species, something far more valuable was conserved. Today, we are focussed on the tiger and on the forest. What about the mountains, the grasslands and the wetlands? What about coastal areas where we have whale sharks? You take up flagship species to focus on different ecotypes and biomes. We use this because, in India, symbolism matters a great deal.

Today, the tiger is an icon. Why can’t there be other icons? The tiger doesn’t cover the different natural ecosystems in the country. We talk about incredible India and its biodiversity. Does this only mean lion, tigers, elephants and rhinos?

Grasslands are very productive ecosystems and this is important because India has the highest cattle population in the world and all of these are free-grazing animals. But grasslands have been used and abused over the years. We have a forest policy but we don’t have a grassland policy. Some of our most endangered species are grassland species like the caracal, which is the biggest of the small cat species. No one knows about caracals. They are found in Kutch and maybe in the northern parts of Ranthambore National Park and are less than 100 in number. There are also other grassland species like the Great Indian Bustard that need attention.

In the process of getting cheetahs, if we assess our grasslands and work on them to make them suitable for the introduction, we will have already achieved a lot.

We also need to focus on grassland-forest mosaics. Cheetahs can survive in both grasslands and grassland-forest mosaics.

Why are we bringing African cheetahs and not Asiatic ones from Iran?

The Asiatic cheetahs are not available as of now. The plan to bring cheetahs from Iran fell through way back in the 1970s. Many political changes occurred then… Indira Gandhi fell from power, the Shah of Iran was removed, the Ayatollahs took over and Iran slowly lost its cheetahs because of a lack of political will and enthusiasm. The cheetah population dropped from over 250 in the 1970s to 26 or 28, as of two-three years ago.

The Supreme Court said that the word “re-introduce” is not appropriate in the present context given that African cheetahs never inhabited the Indian landscape. This is why it is being termed an “introduction”. Some argue that conservation money is being poured into African cheetahs when these are not native to India. Your comments?

No. All cheetahs are one species with many subspecies. So, in the context of cheetahs, the plan is for reintroduction. For the African subspecies, you may call it an introduction.

[Asiatic cheetahs are native to India but were hunted out of existence by the early 1950s.]

Which are the sites in Africa from where the cheetahs are being brought in?

We are looking at the northeastern population of African cheetahs because there is a belief that they are genetically nearer to the Asiatic cheetahs. We are open to exploring if this is true. If this does not work then the next option is southern Africa.

How many cheetahs will be brought into India?

Initially, we thought we would get 10 cheetahs to begin with and get them acclimatised. We don’t yet know how many in total. What is important is an assured supply in the future.

What is the budget for the plan and who is paying for it?

We are currently working out a short-term budget for the initial survey etc. and a separate long-term annual budget. I cannot give an estimate of these figures but I can assure you that it is not a very expensive affair.

The project will be funded by the central government and the state government(s) concerned.

Which are the parks or sanctuaries in India where the cheetahs will be introduced?

In Madhya Pradesh, the potential sites are Kuno National Park and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary. In Rajasthan, it is the Shahgarh area in Jaisalmer district. We may also look at other sites, especially if the state governments put up suggestions… we will assess these for feasibility.

What are the other big cat species that are present in these areas as of today? I know that Madhya Pradesh has leopards.

There are no big cats in Shahgarh. I don’t see leopards as being a problem but tigers might pose some issues. There may be a few stray tigers in Madhya Pradesh and we will assess the risks and try to ensure that conflict is minimised.

What is the exact assessment plan and what are the various stages?

This is a long-drawn process. We have to first conduct an assessment of potential sites in India and simultaneously, we will review sites in Africa from where the cheetahs can be brought.

Ten years ago, we had assessed some sites in India for such a plan. Now, these sites will have to be re-assessed because situations might have changed. Based on these assessments, we will make a priority list and also check what work is required to be done on the ground to make conditions suitable for cheetah introduction and by when the parks will be ready.

There will always be a risk and we want to minimise the risk as much as possible. Look, it is a challenging project but it is worth trying [rather] than saying it is difficult and not doing it at all. When I was drafting the Wildlife Protection Act, they said it couldn’t be done. It was done. When we started Project Crocodile, they said it is very difficult… again, it was done. When we started Project Tiger, there were people who were pessimistic, but it was done. So, challenges are there but they have to be met and what matters is political support--at both the central and the state level.

Have such introduction/reintroduction plans been carried out before?

There have been many reintroductions in southern and eastern Africa but it has not been done in Asia before. We are in touch with experts from Africa who have facilitated such processes before.

Plans to find a second home for Gujarat's lions, most likely in Madhya Pradesh, have been on hold since 2013. This translocation is urgent given the threat posed by diseases such as canine distemper--in 2018, 24 lions died within a month because of this virus. Do you think cheetah introduction plans will hamper efforts to translocate lions into the same landscape? Do you see a lion-cheetah conflict?

No, not at all. If the cheetah is introduced first and it establishes its territory, other big cats can come in later. In Africa, the practice is that small predators are introduced first and then the larger ones and this works. Territory doesn’t necessarily have to belong exclusively to one of these species.

There has been enough politics over these lion and cheetah plans and we are trying to keep the two plans separate. Specific questions about lion translocation plans are better put forth to the government of India.

(Pardikar is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.)

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