Just a beginning
Reintroduction of cheetahs in India is indeed a matter of joy but policymakers should brace for multiple challenges that lie ahead
September 17, 2022 will be remembered as a historic day in the annals of forest conservation in India. More than seven decades ago in 1947, the last three of surviving cheetahs were killed by Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya estate in Madhya Pradesh (now in Chhattisgarh). The Government of India's forestry wing of the Agriculture Ministry, in 1952, officially declared that Cheetahs had become extinct in the country. In bringing cheetahs back with deft diplomacy, the Indian government has shown that we have the grit and resolve to get back our lost heritage. The Prime Minister, soon after returning from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, released the first batch of eight cheetahs on September 17 in Kuno National Park of Madhya Pradesh — giving the nation a wonderful gift on his birthday. Initially, the cheetahs will be quarantined for a few days, and then gradually released in a larger fenced area before being ultimately left in forest. The forest department officers and other experts will continuously monitor their behaviours.
The release of cheetahs is significant not only from the point of view of wildlife conservation, but also because it gives a signal to the world that India has demonstrated the ethos of a civilisational message of bringing back the lost heritage of biodiversity in the country. The PM, while addressing the nation after the release of the cheetahs, appealed for patience from the public before visiting the mammal. It is also a proud moment for the much-maligned Indian Forest Services (IFS) which, for over more than a century, had been striving to get back the priceless species it conserved against all odds before its extinction due to the false notion of bravery held by misguided Royals. Royals are remembered for bringing rich art, music, architecture and other cultural signages to India but had also contributed to unrestrained hunting of tigers and other wild animals.
Cheetah is the most charismatic, beautiful and fastest animal in the world. It is capable of accelerating up to 120 kilometres per hour in just over three seconds. At top speed, the animal's stride is 23 feet long — making it the most fearsome hunter. Male and female cheetahs live differently. The male siblings move in a group of two-three or even more — a coalition that lasts lifelong and is dedicated to protect its territory, while female cheetahs live alone and meet the male only during the mating time. Cheetahs do not pose much challenge to humans, and many Royals used to rear and hunt them. Unlike other cats, they do not roar but meow or purr.
However, after this release of cheetahs in Kuno, the real challenge for the foresters has begun. It remains to be seen if they can replicate the success of tiger conservation for cheetahs also. We have to understand the vulnerability of survival of these carnivores. Cheetah became extinct due to indiscriminate hunting and shrinking of its natural habitat. It thrives on grasslands, and in India, the saddest part is that we have never focussed on grassland conservation. Now, there are the usual naysayers and armchair environmental critics who argue that bringing African cheetahs is a bad idea. Today, if cheetahs can find a new home akin to their home territory, there is nothing wrong in it from the point of view of biodiversity conservation. After all, the migration of animals and plants from one geographic area to another used to routinely happen during the evolutionary process.
Now, the question is what lies ahead for the forest professionals? First, the real test of reintroduction will happen when these eight cheetahs adapt to their new home and start hunting and living in a natural style of their own. The good thing about Kuno is that it has a good prey base for the cheetahs to survive. Second issue is how local people will see this introduction in terms of protection of their habitats. The Madhya Pradesh government had already relocated 24 villages while the forest department ensured adequate precautions for their protection and movement. The department also made arrangements for 24-hour vigilance but it remains to be seen that the tree-climbing leopards do not enter into their territory. Leopards hunt by ambush but cheetahs do not have retractable claws and hunt for a particular type of prey — comprising medium-sized antelopes, hares, calves of herd animals, and birds — with their speed and sudden galloping gait. Third, there is a need to involve local people and scientific communities from wildlife institutes and universities across the world in the conservation process, with liberal research and training grants. Fourth, and perhaps the most important step, is to ensure the poachers are kept at bay. For this, the forest department at the field level must possess the best of the equipment.
The Central and Madhya Pradesh governments, therefore, will have to plan a long-term strategy for cheetah conservation in India so that in the next few years the population of the cheetahs can grow. The situation of manpower — from forest guards to ranger level — and infrastructure need a review. We must understand that the manpower of the forest department and infrastructures like superior weapons and other modern gadgets are no match to the superior equipment the poachers are having these days. It will be a special challenge for the Park Director because cheetah's breeding requires proper attention and resources. A 'Project Cheetah Scheme' needs to be started on the pattern of Project Tiger. The introduction of cheetahs is not only a time to rejoice but to take some drastic reforms in the sector. The Director General of Forests must discuss with the Prime Minister because this is the best time the forest management can hope to make changes, as the Prime Minister is keen on ensuring changes. On cheetah's introduction, policymakers must remember the message of Laurie Marker of Cheetah Conservation Fund, "The problem is not with predators. The problem is with us humans. We have to change the way we think and behave".
The writer is Chairman of Centre for Resource Management & Environment. Views expressed are personal