New Delhi: Nearly 70 years after the cheetah was declared extinct in India, the animal is set to be reintroduced in the country, with the first batch arriving from South Africa and Namibia by the end of this year. Experts from Africa are likely to visit India in April to assess and provide their inputs on the selected habitats for the African cheetahs. Wildlife scientists from India will also travel to Africa between May and August to train themselves on handling the fastest animal on the planet.
Asiatic cheetahs flourished in India till the early 19th century and were, in fact, considered common across the country and the Middle East. But the animals were hunted into extinction — the last three recorded Asiatic cheetahs were shot down by Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya in 1947.
The central government’s initiative to reintroduce the cheetah, the only large mammal to become extinct after India’s Independence, was approved by the Supreme Court last year in response to a petition filed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). The top court had then said that the African cheetah would be reintroduced on “an experimental basis in a careful chosen habitat and nurtured and watched to see whether it can adapt to the Indian conditions”.
Yadvendradev Jhala, principal investigator of the cheetah reintroduction project and dean of the Wildlife Institute of India in Uttarakhand, told ThePrint: “A bunch of Indian wildlife scientists and managers will be trained by experts from Namibia and South Africa on how to handle the world’s fastest animal between May and August this year.”
In November last year, Jhala, his colleague Qamar Qureshi and biologist and principal investigator of the cheetah reintroduction project Bipin C.M. inspected six potential sites where the animal could be hosted in India.
“We are expecting to bring in eight to 10 cheetahs in the first trip. We plan to have 40 cheetahs to establish a metapopulation here,” Jhala said.
‘Managing cheetahs easier than large carnivores like tigers’
Among the six locations surveyed, the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh (which also stretches to parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan) has been selected as the immediate den for the first batch of cheetahs as the site requires the least amount of investment owing to its earlier preparation for the relocation of Asiatic lions from Gujarat.
Others in the priority list include Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh and Gandhi Sagar-Chittorgarh-Bhainsrorgarh sanctuaries in Rajasthan, which form a contiguous habitat of 2,000 sq km for cheetahs. Both state governments will have to work together in allocating these territorial divisions.
“While Nauradehi needs investments in terms of prey argumentation, Kuno is almost ready for cheetah introduction,” said Jhala, who heads a team that’s currently doing an in-depth assessment of prey-predator population and human impact in the area.
Other potential sites where wildlife experts intend to have free-ranging cheetah populations are Madhav National Park in Madhya Pradesh as well as the Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve and Shergarh Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan.
“Managing cheetahs is much easier than large carnivores like tigers, lions, and leopards, which we have been doing all these years, as these big cats enter into least conflict with humans,” said Jhala, who was also involved in all the technical aspects of the NTCA’s Project Tiger in 2002.
“The main factor that will impact the success of this translocation project is the central government’s political will and allocation of resources and funding,” Jhala added.
However, experts also noted that the lack of a separate sanctuary for cheetahs might be a barrier in establishing a viable population in the India. In Africa, 77 per cent of cheetahs live outside protected areas because of other larger predators, all of which compete with cheetahs for prey and also prey on cheetah cubs.
“Establishing a cheetah population in a high-density tiger area will be difficult due to likely high rates of tigers preying on cheetahs. However, once the cheetah population is established, there can be tiger-cheetah coexistence,” said Jhala.
But the Rajasthan government has already filed a petition in the Supreme Court claiming conflict between lions and tigers in Madhya Pradesh because a natural corridor of movement exists between Kuno in MP and Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan.