Feb 02, 2022
As India became independent, it also lost one of its magnificent mammals, the Cheetah. The Cheetah is a big cat known as the fastest running mammal on earth. It is not as large as the leopard, but is bigger than a dog. With a long and lithe body, and tear-like marks down its face, the Cheetah is idolized as a symbol of freedom and agility, and is also a wild animal that is not known to come in direct conflict with people. Unfortunately, the last Cheetahs were shot in India by 1947. By 1952, India officially declared the Cheetah extinct. The only remaining Asiatic cheetahs in the wild are now found in Iran.
Now, the government has announced that it will import African Cheetahs to repopulate Cheetahs in India.
With a very small number of Cheetahs in the wild in Iran, Iran refused India’s request for Cheetahs. Following this India started considering bringing in African cheetahs. Asiatic cheetahs are different subspecies. However, some biologists believe that both Asiatic and African are sufficiently alike to play similar roles in the ecosystem.
But why did the Cheetah go extinct? Unlike the tiger that inhabits a variety of ecosystems including thick forests, the Cheetah is primarily an animal of scrub forest and grassland. Grasslands in India are doing very poorly. They are often burnt, destroyed or overgrazed. If we take a look at other iconic species of grasslands, we can understand how precarious the state is. As an example, Indian wolves are losing more and more habitat, and the Great Indian Bustard, the state bird of Rajasthan, is critically endangered today [close to extinction. About 100 birds are left in India].
However, bringing back the Cheetah is not shorn of politics.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of India directed the state of Gujarat to give Asiatic lions to Madhya Pradesh so they could have a second home. All the Asiatic lions of the world are in Gujarat, in the Gir landscape. The Court identified that all lions in one place could be detrimental to the population, under potential attack from epidemics, natural disaster, forest fires etc.
In the 1990s, African lions had mass deaths due to an epidemic of Canine Distemper Virus in Tanzania- at least 1,000 lions died. However, Gujarat has refused to give lions a second home in MP because they want to be the only state with lions. In fact, a habitat prepared for lions in Kuno-Palpur sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh is now being proposed as the site for Cheetah relocation.
In Writ Petition (Civil) No. 337 of 1995 Centre for Environment Law, WWF-I vs UOI, the Supreme Court indicated that it was unethical to think of bringing Cheetahs when lions had not been shifted to a second habitat. The Court said:
“MoEF, in our view, has not conducted any detailed study before passing the order of introducing foreign cheetah to Kuno. Kuno is not a historical habitat for African cheetahs, no materials have been placed before us to establish that fact. A detailed scientific study has to be done before introducing a foreign species to India, which has not been done in the instant case. NBWL, which is Statutory Board established for the purpose under the Wildlife Protection Act was also not consulted
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 re- Page 64 64 introduction of Asiatic lion to Kuno. At this stage, in our view, the decision taken by MoEF for introduction of African cheetahs first to Kuno and then Asiatic lion, is arbitrary an illegal and clear violation of the statutory requirements provided under the Wildlife Protection Act. The order of MoEF to introduce African Cheetahs into Kuno cannot stand in the eye of Law and the same is quashed.”
However, in a later judgement in 2020, the Supreme Court allowed India to bring Cheetahs from Africa after a detailed study.
In this instance, we see the Asiatic lion being represented as a symbol of Gujarati pride, and we see India trying to take ownership of the Cheetah. Often, animals are used as tools for diplomacy and state symbols. For instance, China sends out Giant Pandas to different countries as a diplomatic tool, also asserting all Pandas belong to China.
In the tussle between lions and Cheetah though, it is important that the needs of the animals come first, as also indicated in the 2013 Supreme Court order referred above. Lions in Gujarat have already been repeatedly struck by attacks of Canine distemper virus, and it is important for them to be far from the Gir site to avoid further infections. And biologists have stressed that the Cheetah should be used for protecting grassland and scrub forest sites that are so far unprotected, so that we can increase the amount of suitable habitat for the species.
Currently the plan to bring Cheetahs to Kuno-Palpur sanctuary does not actually increase any protection, as the area is already protected. Instead of keeping Cheetahs inside a protected area (like a safari) it is better to find several sites which are not under protection so new sites and their grassland and scrub forest species can also be protected.
While state symbols are important, so is the ‘eco-centric approach,’ and doing what is best for the species in question.
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Previous Columns: Wildlife Protection
Neha Sinha is a Conservation Biologist, author and columnist. Her critically acclaimed first book, Wild and Wilful (HarperCollins India, 2021) tells the story of 15 of India’s iconic wild species. She is a leading commentator on environment, writing for Hindustan Times, Hindu, BloombergQuint, Telegraph and others. She studied Biodiversity Conservation at Oxford University. She is the 2017 recipient of the 'Wildlife Service' award by the Sanctuary Asia Foundation. She has served on various environmental committees as an expert. She tweets at nehaa_sinha.
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