Chitraka, Sanskrit for the speckled one, is perhaps the origin of the word cheetah. The animal however, has disappeared from the country. 1952 was the year when the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) was declared extinct in India. The last of these cats is believed to have been killed in 1947.
A flagship species of the grasslands, scrublands and open forests, today the cheetah populations have been restricted to isolated pockets in Africa and Asia as the dryland ecosystems have been drastically encroached upon by human habitation. Botswana, Namibia and South Africa together host a population of about 5,000 African cheetahs, while Iran is said to be home to about 80 of the last surviving Asiatic cheetahs.
In a recent development, India aims to reintroduce the animal in the country under a programme titled Project Cheetah. Increasingly reintroduction of large carnivores has been recognised as a strategy to conserve threatened species and restore ecosystem functions. Nevertheless, this game plan raises a host of ethical and ecological questions, which was initially debated in a consultative meeting held in Gajner, Rajasthan in 2009, and attended by experts from across the world, officials from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India and the Chief Wildlife Wardens of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. The foremost outcome was to conduct a detailed survey at selected sites and explore the potential of reintroducing the cheetah in India – with Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and the Wildlife Trust of India, Noida entrusted with the task of conducting the survey.
The findings of the survey have been published as a report in 2010 – ‘Assessing the Potential for Reintroducing the Cheetah in India’. Ten sites from seven landscapes in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have been assessed for their viability to hold reintroduced cheetah populations. The important factors that governed the site assessment were availability of habitat, availability of prey and attitude of resident communities towards conservation and their livelihood dependencies on natural resources. Apart from the habitat size, which was assessed using remote sensing image data, all other parameters were studied through field surveys. The population habitat viability analysis was used to compute the current and potential carrying capacity of the sites to support the cheetah as well as to assess the long term viability of sustaining the reintroduced populations.
Cheetah reintroduction sites
Based on the above assessment three regions were identified as most suitable potential cheetah reintroduction sites – the Kuno Palpur and Nauradehi wildlife sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh and the Shahgarh area in Rajasthan.
- Kuno Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary is a part of the Sheopur-Shivpuri forested landscape and has the second largest area (6,800 sq km) amongst the surveyed sites. As restorative investment has already been made here for the introduction of the Asiatic lions, the protected area can easily sustain a capacity of 27 cheetahs. This could be enhanced to over 32 individuals with the addition of another 120 sq km of forested area to the Sanctuary and by managing the surrounding 3,000 sq km forested habitat as a buffer. Once the cheetah population establishes itself within the Sanctuary, dispersers would colonise the landscape and it could potentially hold over 70 individuals. This would not preclude the reintroduction of the lion as the two would complement each other. Indeed, Kuno offers the prospect of all the four large forest felids of India to coexist as they did in the past.
- The Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary (1197 sq km) in Madhya Pradesh is part of a 5,500 sq km forested landscape. Based on current prey densities the area could support 25 cheetahs. It has been recommended that a 750 sq km area be designated as the core of the Sanctuary and about 23 human settlements be relocated out from this core area, with generous and adequate compensation. The assessment indicates that local communities would prefer to relocate for better livelihood and modern facilities. The site could then support over 70 cheetahs.
- The Shahgarh landscape, already fenced along the international border in Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan, will need an additional fence of about 140 km to encompass about 4,000 sq km of xerophytic habitat. Also about 80 seasonally used human settlements, each having 5-10 households, would need to be relocated and alternate arrangements provided. Though the prey species diversity is less (primarily chinkara) in Shahgarh, the area could currently support about 15 cheetahs and has the potential to sustain 40 cheetahs with habitat management within the large fenced ecosystem.
Detailed project report
Identifying the potential sites is just one step towards bringing back the extinct species to India. Scientific surveys will have to be conducted in the designated project sites to get detailed reports on their long term sustainability as cheetah habitats. Road maps for the eco restoration of the sites will have to be drawn up and resource investments needed. For the project to be implemented successfully both central and state governments need concerted political will and commitment towards resource and personnel investment. All preparations have to be in tandem with discussions and negotiations with countries which currently host cheetah populations to obtain suitable cheetah individuals for Project Cheetah.
The reintroduction of cheetah, important in itself, would have equally important conservation ramifications. In saving it one would have to save not only its prey base, but also other endangered species of the grasslands, some of which are on the brink of extinction. Amongst these, the caracal (Caracal caracal), the Indian wolf (Canis lupus pallipes) and three endangered species of the bustard family- the Houbara (Chlamydotis undulata macqueenii), the lesser florican (Sypheotides indica) and the most endangered of all, the great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) feature topmost on the list. The grassland dependent species, both avifaunal and faunal, have suffered a more drastic decline than any other species adapted to other biomes, simply because the grasslands have undergone the most qualitative and quantitative decimation of all ecotypes in the sub continent.
With the reintroduction of the cheetah the dryland ecosystems in India may have a chance to return to their natural state. It is also expected that the reintroduction would enhance tourism prospects at the sites, the cascading effects of which would benefit the local communities. The cheetah is part of our heritage and today India has the economic ability to consider restoring this lost natural heritage. Therefore, Project Cheetah should be viewed not just as the reintroduction of a species but as an endeavour to better manage and restore some of the country’s most valuable yet most neglected ecosystems.