New Delhi: The Union environment ministry told Parliament this week that the Asiatic cheetah — once native to India — went extinct “primarily due to hunting and habitat loss”. The animal was declared extinct in India in 1952.
The government now plans to revive the cheetah population in the country by importing the animal from Namibia and South Africa “on an experimental basis”.
India sealed the deal with Namibia on 20 July, and the government told Parliament Monday that it is “in the advanced stage of consultation with South Africa”.
This is not the first attempt in India at importing the cheetah. There have been previous attempts to bring in cheetahs from Iran, for example, and there are records of the erstwhile princely states bringing in the animal from Africa.
A trip through the archives reveals how different perceptions about the cheetah — from a key ally in hunting for India’s Mughal rulers, to a less-than favourable outlook in the British Raj — played a key role in its diminishing numbers.
Cheetahs in the Mughal era
Known to be the fastest animal on land, cheetahs are the smallest of the big cats. They are not typically known to attack or hunt humans.
In his paper Lions, Cheetahs, and Others in the Mughal Landscape, wildlife historian and conservationist Divyabhanusinh wrote that there was a “crucial” difference between the lion and the cheetah in the Mughal era.
“The former was an object, the ultimate object being royal game, to be dispatched in style when encountered. The cheetah, on the other hand, was to be caught and trained after taming it, as an instrument of shikar (hunting),” he wrote.
Cheetahs were captured from the wild and trained to course (hunt or pursue) blackbuck, and “were looked after with great care” by the Mughals, according to Divyabhanusinh.
He described in the paper how, in 1572, Akbar took a cheetah — named Chitr Nanjan — out for a hunting trip in what is now the area around the Jaipur airport, and was so pleasantly surprised by the animal’s performance that he ordered it be given “a jewel studded collar and a drum was beaten in front of it”.
Other records show that Akbar collected 9,000 cheetahs during his reign from 1556 to 1605.
Cheetahs were well spread across the subcontinent, preferred open grasslands and shrub forests as habitats, so they could freely run to chase their prey.
However, these habitats were also most susceptible to land-use change, to suit human needs, said Raza Kazmi, another wildlife historian.
“When India was ruled by dynasties and empires, open lands were the first to be brought under the plow. There was a huge interest in bringing as much land as possible under agriculture,” he said, adding, “but it’s simultaneously true that in some areas the cheetah’s typical habitat did outlive its existence”.
India still has open grasslands and scrub forests, even if their size is shrinking.
One factor that played a major role in the decline of cheetah populations in the Mughal and post-Mughal era had to do with lack of breeding, say conservationists.
Cheetahs are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity. In a joint paper from 2019, tracing the extinction of cheetahs in India, Divyabhanusinh and Kazmi found “the first and only instance up to the 20th century of a cheetah breeding in captivity anywhere in the world”. It was recorded by emperor Jahangir in 1613.
In the British era
By the time the British arrived in India, the population of the Asiatic cheetah in India was already on the decline.
Attitudes towards the cheetah somewhat shifted after the British arrived, notes Mahesh Rangarajan, environmental historian and chair of the Ashoka Archives of Contemporary India at Ashoka University.
“In contrast with South Asia, the British had a very different history of relations with large wild mammals. In common with much of Europe, there had been concerted campaigns against specific animals,” he wrote in the book Nature and Nation.
While large cats like the lion and tiger were seen as challenging game to kill, smaller animals, including the cheetah, “were vermin to be killed”.
“Cheetahs were not considered very prized game because they didn’t pose such a big threat to humans. They were also not that big in size, so they weren’t considered trophies,” Rangarajan told ThePrint.
Rangarajan also found that cheetahs were bounty-hunted by the colonial administration in fairly large numbers, with rewards ranging from Rs 6 for cubs to up to Rs 18 for an adult. According to his research, between 1870 and 1925 the average number of cheetahs killed for rewards was 1.2 a year. This is higher than the number of cheetahs killed and speared between 1800 and 1950, which totalled 127, or a statistical average of less than one a year.
“Bounty-hunting, therefore, may have hastened, if not caused, its decline in many localities where it still survived. Given the relatively low density at which it existed, even the removal of a small number of animals could have had an adverse impact on the ability of wild populations to reproduce even at the minimal level essential for survival,” he wrote in a paper published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society in 1998.
To replenish depleting cheetah numbers, some princely states had started importing cheetahs from Africa in the first part of the 20th century. According to Divyabhanusinh and Kazmi, the first recorded instance of this was in 1918 and the practice continued till the early 1950s.
Return to the wild
A popular image of Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Surguja from 1947, standing with his gun as three dead cheetahs lay at his feet, is widely believed to be of the last three Asiatic cheetahs in India.
However, Kazmi recorded a sighting of a cheetah as late as 1975 in Jharkhand.
Now India is poised to get a new set of cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa, but whether their numbers will ever rise enough to be introduced to the wild is a question only time will tell.
“The African biologists have managed to breed some cheetahs in captivity, and are confident their protocols can be adopted in India too. It’s possible that they will adapt to their new habitat and that their numbers will stabilise,” said Kazmi.
“But can we establish free-ranging cheetah meta-populations which can move freely across connected landscapes like other big cats? I can’t be so sure,” he added.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)