Will Master Sprinter suffer the same fate as Mr. Stripes?

Posted by Arun

We all know it, it’s finally official. The Government of India has decided to import cheetahs to the country from Africa. 

Indian Cheetahs had disappeared from the subcontinent by the end of the first half of the twentieth century after relentless persecution for decades. They were also used extensively by Mughal emperors for hunting down gazelles. They are the only large members of the cat family (taxonomists don’t place cheetahs with true cats due to their non-retractable claws) known to have been tamed and used for hunting. But by the beginning of the twentieth century their numbers started dwindling. 

The Maharaja of Surguja (today a district in northern Chhatisgarh, India) holds the notorious record of shooting down the last wild Indian cheetah in 1947. Ironically, while India won freedom from British rule in 1947, the cheetah was liberated from Indian soil!

Nice thing to bring back a hunter that once ruled the Indian grasslands. If they come back, India will be the only Asian country to have six big cats. Sounds good to the ears. But the fact is that instead of bringing back the Asiatic cheetah, the government plans to import African cheetahs, as Iran — the only country that has a wild population of Asiatic cheetahs — has refused India’s request for handing over a couple of breeding pairs or even sample tissues for a cloning experiment. 

Although certain experts are of the opinion that African cheetahs bear only a slight genetic difference from the Iranian race, I have my doubts and feel that further studies have to be conducted in order to be completely sure. Otherwise, it will be African and not Asian cheetahs sprinting across our grasslands. 

But the pressing question here is: Does it make sense to reintroduce a species by spending thousands of dollars and trying to protect it while the rest of the big cat conservation is in shambles? Case in point: The pathetic state of tiger conservation in India. The number of tigers have fallen to an all-time low due to poaching, reduction in prey densities, and habitat loss. Instead of spending money on protecting the habitats of our surviving wildlife and reviving their populations, the government has come up with this preposterous idea of reintroducing an animal that has disappeared from the scene for more than half a century! 

According to the latest unconfirmed reports, eighteen cheetahs have already arrived from the Middle East and will be introduced shortly after some preparation.

I had gone through the feasibility study titled “Assessing the Potential for Reintroducing the Cheetah in India”, by Dr M K Ranjithsinh of the Wildlife Trust of India and Dr Y V Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India. The report was an interesting read. They had surveyed seven landscapes and arrived finally at three suitable areas for reintroducing the species: The Kuno-Palpur wildlife sanctuary and Nauradehi wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, and the Shahgarh landscape in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. These sites have been finalised for introducing the imported cats. In the study, they mention a ‘top-down effect’ which will protect, other than the Cheetah, its habitat (grasslands), prey species (chinkara, blackbuck, etc.) and also sympatric species (Indian wolf, caracal, etc.). 

But wait, wasn’t this the same plan in the case of Project Tiger? The tiger was identified as the flagship species of its habitat so that all other species in that habitat get protected along with it. But we all know what the situation is right now. The entire pyramid of Project Tiger, of which the tiger was at the pinnacle, has fallen like a stack of cards.

So the question is not whether the cheetah can be reintroduced but if it should be, considering the plight of the other big cats in the country due to the laxity of the government and the officials in conservation efforts. 

Otherwise, the Master Sprinter will follow the pugmarks of Mr. Stripes towards extinction, or should I say ‘re-extinction’ no sooner than being reintroduced.

Text by Arun
Photo: Royalty-free image courtesy doc_ @ Stock.xchng.

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