India considers bringing back the cheetah, even as lions and other species wait for conservation attention

  • Reversing its own order of 2013, where it had struck down cheetah reintroduction in India, the Supreme Court of India has now given a go-ahead to central government’s ambitious plan for bringing in the cheetah from Namibia, Africa.
  • The 2020 order comes even as its earlier order that directed finding a second home for critically endangered species like Asiatic lion, remains non-implemented.
  • A section of experts, who are opposing the move, believe the government’s focus on cheetah is a case of misplaced conservation priorities as it is ignoring several other species which are on the verge of extinction in the country right now.

Nearly seventy years after it went extinct in India, the cheetah is set to make a comeback. Reversing its own earlier stand, the Supreme Court of India, which in 2013 had rejected a cheetah reintroduction plan calling it arbitrary and illegal, has now given a go-ahead to the introduction of cheetah from Namibia in Africa to India. 

But will this renewed focus on cheetah, that went extinct decades ago, take the focus and efforts away from other species that perhaps need more attention? The great Indian bustard, for example, stands on the brink of extinction in the country today. 

Additionally, environmentalists have highlighted the incomplete status of existing plans like the translocation of lions from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh. Kuno national park in Madhya Pradesh, once touted as the new home for the lions, is one of the habitats which was considered for the introduction of the African cheetah. In April 2013 case in the Supreme Court, this issue came up when a two-member bench of the apex court had held that the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) “has not conducted any detailed study” before deciding on introducing foreign cheetah to Kuno. 

“Kuno is not a historical habitat for African cheetahs … A detailed scientific study has to be done before introducing a foreign species to India, which has not been done in the instant case. We may indicate that our top priority is to protect Asiatic lions, an endangered species and to provide a second home. Various steps have been taken for the last few decades, but nothing transpired so far. Crores of rupees have been spent by the Government of India and the state of Madhya Pradesh for the introduction of the Asiatic lion to Kuno,” the bench had held while quashing the ministry’s decision to bring cheetah back to India. 

The court had instead asked the central government to focus on finding a second home for Asiatic lions which, at present, are only found in Gir in Gujarat. 

However, now, seven years after the judgement, the stand adopted by the apex court has changed. In the latest order on January 28, 2020 a bench headed by Chief Justice of India Justice S.A. Bobde while hearing the application of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) held that they found that the word “re-introduce” being “erroneously applied since it is an admitted fact that the African cheetahs never inhabited in India.” 

“Therefore, if an attempt is made to relocate the African Cheetah within the territory of India, it will amount to an ‘introduction’ of the African cheetah and not a ‘re-introduction’,” noted the bench in its order

The court noted that they have been informed that African cheetahs would be introduced on “an experimental basis in a careful chosen habitat and nurtured and watched to see whether it can adapt to the Indian conditions.” In case there are some difficulties noticed about the location in which it is introduced then the location would be changed to another forest which is more habitable for the animals, noted the court. 

“It is not desirable that this action of introducing the African cheetahs into India be left to the sole discretion of the NTCA but we consider it appropriate that NTCA be guided and directed by the committee of experts in the field who would carry out the survey for the best location for introducing the African cheetahs in India and take a careful decision about the viability of introducing this animal on a larger scale,” directed the SC while stating that the committee shall supervise the entire process. 

The expert committee shall include M.K. Ranjit Sinh, former director of wildlife preservation, Dhananjai Mohan, who is the chief conservator of forests, wildlife administration, protection and intelligence, Uttarakhand and the deputy inspector general (wildlife) of the MoEFCC. The expert panel was directed to report to the SC every four months. 

Indian National Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, under whose tenure as India’s environment minister the cheetah introduction programme had first taken shape, rejoiced after the SC order. 

“Delighted that Supreme Court has just given ok to reintroducing cheetah from Namibia. This was something I had initiated 10 years ago. Cheetah which derives from the Sanskrit ‘chitra‘ (speckled) is the only mammal hunted to extinction in modern India,” Ramesh tweeted.

However, noted environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta noted that it is a “classic case of misplaced conservation priorities.” 

“You have species like the lion for whose relocation preparation has been made for nearly three decades followed by an SC judgement on it in 2013. But for seven years the government has been dragging its feet on it,” Dutta told Mongabay-India. 

“It is ironic that we want to shift our whole conservation focus on a species that went extinct in the 1950s rather than those which are on the verge of going extinct in a few years. Even the 2013 SC judgement noted that it is a necessity to find alternative homes for highly endangered species like the great Indian bustard, Bengal florican, Asiatic lion, wild buffalo, dugong and the Manipur brow-antlered deer,” said Dutta. 

Focus on many big species means many other endangered species like wild buffalo continue to face neglect. Photo by Azad/Wikimedia Commons.

Even the National Wildlife Action Plan 2017-31, which is the latest overarching guiding document for the country’s wildlife sector also does not mention anything about the introduction of the cheetah. It calls for identifying suitable alternative homes for species having “one or two isolated populations such as Jerdon’s courser, Batagur turtle, Asiatic lions, etc, and prepare conservation plans for the same.” The action on it was aimed to start in 2018 and completed by 2021.  

Read more: India’s policy flip flop on the lion and cheetah

Cheetah project gets a new lifeline 

Cheetah was declared extinct from India in 1952 and is considered the only large mammal that has gone extinct since the country’s independence. If the cheetah is reintroduced, India would become probably the only country in Asia to have all the major big cats in the wild (lions, tigers and leopards included).

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, cheetah’s population is ‘vulnerable’ witnessing a decreasing trend with only less than 7,000 of them left in the wild globally. 

Before the SC struck down the cheetah project in 2013, the Wildlife Institute of India, the central government’s top institution on wildlife-related issues, and the Wildlife Trust of India, a non-governmental organisation, had come out with a report, ‘Assessing the Potential for Reintroducing the Cheetah in India’ in 2010. 

The report had noted that the reintroduction of the cheetah would have equally important conservation ramifications. It had noted that by saving it one would have to save not only its prey-base comprising certain threatened species, but also other endangered species of the grasslands, some of which are on the brink of extinction. “Amongst these are the caracal, the Indian wolf and three endangered species of the bustard family- the Houbara, the lesser florican and the most endangered of all, the great Indian bustard (GIB),” the report had said. 

A senior official of the NTCA, while wishing anonymity, said post the order of the SC, “the entire cheetah introduction plan would be revived.” 

“It was stalled for years. But there is a long way to go. The expert panel will look at the factors behind it going extinct and the factors prevalent today to ascertain whether it can be introduced or not and how that can be done. A suitable habitat needs to be found out as well,” the NTCA official told Mongabay-India.

However, the suitable habitat for cheetah should not be a problem as Madhya Pradesh has been preparing for it. Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary and Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh are considered suitable habitats for the African cheetah. Namibia, which is home to one of the largest populations of cheetah in the wild, is also on board with the plan. 

In fact, in 2018, the Madhya Pradesh government had even written to the NTCA seeking revival of the cheetah reintroduction project. 

A senior official of the MoEFCC said that “there is no problem whatsoever with the cheetah introduction even if Kuno-Palpur which has been preparing for becoming the second home of Gujarat’s lions, is selected for cheetah as both of them can easily co-exist.” 

“They have a history of cohabitation – something that is common in Africa as well,” the MoEFFC official said. 

On the contentious issue that India is introducing African cheetah instead of the Asiatic cheetah that had gone extinct from India, the environment ministry official said it is alright even from the ecological perspective because when the original species is not available then the closest relative can be introduced.

What happens to the long-pending lion translocation project now?

At present, Asiatic lions, in wild, are only found in Gujarat but over the decades there has been serious concern that an infection or a natural calamity can wipe-off the last surviving wild population of the big cat. 

Gir forest in Gujarat is the only remaining home of Asiatic lions across the world. Photo by Mohsin alam3/Wikimedia Commons.

According to the 2015 Census, there are about 523 lions in Gujarat. According to the Gujarat government data in February 2019, over 200 lions died in the state in 2017 and 2018. The latest population estimation of lions is now expected later this year. 

But during the past five years, there have been instances when an urgent need for a second home of lions has been felt.  For instance, in 2018, over two dozen lions died due to the canine distemper virus (CDV). In 1994, lions in Serengeti (Tanzania) had suffered from an outbreak of the CDV leading to the death of hundreds of lions.

There has been debate and efforts around finding a second home for lions of Gir in Gujarat to ensure their survival. But the reluctance and political grandstanding on the issue has ensured that the plan continues to wait to see the light of the day. Despite the SC order in 2013 directing the governments to do it, the central and state governments have continued to drag their feet. 

Till May 2014, Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat and during his stint, the state government had made lion translocation an issue of state’s pride refusing to share lions and stonewalled all efforts for it. 

Post-2014, when Modi became the prime minister, the condition has remained the same. The MoEFCC official, quoted above, admits that lion translocation won’t see the light of the day at least during the tenure of PM Modi. “Everything on that issue either doesn’t move or moves at a snail’s pace. No one wants to antagonise,” the official said. 

Ajay Dubey, an activist who has been fighting for translocation of lions, said, when the SC is leading the wildlife conservation efforts in the country it should also ensure implementation of its judgement on lion translocation. 

“It is a very interesting situation. We are ready to bring cheetah from Namibia in Africa but have been unable to complete lion translocations so far from Gujarat to its neighbouring state, Madhya Pradesh, within the country. The lion population is under a severe threat and the SC needs to take cognizance of that,” Dubey, whose petition regarding this has been pending in the SC, told Mongabay-India. 

Read more: Kuno, India’s second home for the Asiatic lion, is ready


Banner image: A pair of African cheetahs preening themselves. Photo by Arturo de Frias Marques/Wikimedia Commons.

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