The African Cheetah is set to be translocated to India and many are seeing this as a ‘re-introduction’ of the cat species. The Asiatic Cheetah was once commonly found across the Indian peninsula especially in dry grasslands, its preferred habitat, but slowly the population was driven to extinction in India and across Asia. The present population of Asiatic Cheetah is found only in parts of Iran and is dwindling. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has labeled the cat species as critically endangered.
The African Cheetah is a close relative (subspecies) of the Asiatic Cheetah and it has been assumed that this subspecies would survive in the landscape where the Asiatic Cheetahs once were in abundance. Among other potential sites in Rajasthan and Gujarat, the Kuno National Park in Sheopur district, Madhya Pradesh has been chosen as the site for the Cheetah (re)introduction program. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) is overseeing the Cheetah program and is fairly confident of the success of this ‘experiment’. Plans have been made to get 13 or 14 individuals initially from South Africa and Namibia, eventually increasing up to potentially 60 individuals as part of the project.
The Supreme Court (SC) of India gave the Cheetah program its nod in January 2020 after which the ground has been prepared for the translocation of the animal from Africa. Constant communication and visits by the official representatives from South Africa and India have created a buzz around the program which is being kept alive through media and outreach. Given the global pandemic situation and the history associated with the Kuno National Park, only time will tell if the program will actually take off.
This is not the first time that the Kuno National Park has been chosen as the site for a reintroduction program. The Kuno National Park was initially notified as a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1981 and it was notified as a National Park in 2018. is a part of the Kathiar-Gir dry deciduous forests ecoregion. The region came to the limelight in the 1990s when it was chosen as the site for the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction program. The Asiatic Lion is also a critically endangered cat species. Since the Kuno ecoregion is similar to Gir, the last pocket in the world where the Asiatic Lion is found in the wild, Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary was earmarked for the project. This meant the eviction of villages that were within the boundary of the sanctuary. By the turn of the millennium, more than 4500 inhabitants from 24 villages were resettled outside this protected area. It has been two decades since the resettlement but the lions are yet to be seen in the landscape.
The Asiatic Lion reintroduction program was theoretically robust in its approach and seemed like the right step towards preserving ‘natural heritage’. After the SC ordered the central government to move some lions from Gujarat’s Gir to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno-Palpur, the Government of Gujarat declined the order by claiming ‘Regional Pride’ over the Asiatic Lions. Despite the ecological/biological consensus, the state of Gujarat expressed an inability to share its pride with the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh.
Even though the lions could not make it to Kuno-Palpur, the other ‘big cat’ (the Tiger) has its pugmarks spread across the landscape. Since the Kuno-Palpur ecoregion is connected to the nearby Ranthambore National Park via wildlife corridors, occasionally, the presence of solitary tigers has been found in the wilds of Kuno. Typically, big cats require a large area as a part of their habitat. The Kuno landscape acts as an extension of Ranthambore, as part of a common ecoregion. It is plausible that for some individuals the Kuno National Park may be a part of their territory.
The expansive savannah-type grassland of Kuno, ideally suited for the lion, harbors diverse and endangered wildlife including the four-horned antelope, blackbuck, rusty-spotted cat, wild dog, sloth bear, and smooth-coated otter. The Kuno landscape is also an important area for multiple subspecies of vultures that are ‘highly endangered’. The Kuno river, part of the Chambal river basin, is a critical habitat supporting unique aquatic fauna like the Mugger crocodile, Indian softshell turtle, and the Gharial. The abundance of prey population has been one of the deciding factors in selecting Kuno-Palpur for the two reintroduction programs. But skeptics have voiced their concerns regarding the Cheetah program citing an inadequate prey population suited for the medium-sized cat.
Despite the concerns, the Cheetah program seems to be heading forward. All major logistical requirements for the translocation are being fulfilled. Vaccination drives for stray dogs and feral cattle have begun in villages around the national park. Leopards and Hyenas are to be marked and tracked using radio collars to perhaps keep a check on prey competition. Since Leopard, Hyena, and Cheetah are expected to compete for a common prey population, adequate information on the movement of individuals may be required over time for effective monitoring. The natural vegetation of Kuno is also set to change with the introduction of the Cheetah. To make the animal feel more at home, certain native grass species will be replaced by some non-native species which is expected to help the Cheetahs adapt to their new home.
This is all deja-vu. It has all happened before, not too long ago, where preparations were made for the big translocation, enclosures were made, monitoring plans were set, the release was planned but the magnificent beasts never arrived. Call it circumstance or politics, the bottom line is that people were evicted in the name of conservation but the project never took off. The purpose was never served. Is this move a way to compensate for all that has been lost or is it a way to genuinely preserve whatever is left. It remains a question of intent.
- Image Source: https://www.patrika.com/sheopur-news/chintu-cheetah-will-promote-kuno-before-african-cheetahs-6951410/
- Survey for Wildlife Values in the Kuno Landscape: Priliminary Report on the Survey for Biologically Signigicant Area, 2010, Samrakshan Trust Madhya Pradesh Field Office