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Special Content


Issue no 27, 01-07 October 2022

Cheetahs are Back!

 

India is home once again to the majestic Cheetah, the world's fastest land animal. Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi on 17th September 2022 released eight wild Cheetahs, brought all the way from Namibia, into the Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh. Out of the eight cheetahs, five are female and three are male. The initiative was made under 'Project Cheetah' - the world's first inter-continental large wild carnivore translocation project that aims to introduce atleast 50 cheetas in various national parks over five years. The cheetah was declared extinct from India in 1952. It happens to be the only large carnivore that got completely wiped out from India, mainly due to over-hunting and habitat loss. As part of the Government's efforts to revitalise and diversify India's wildlife and its habitat, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in January this year, had unveiled the 'Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India'.

Why Cheetahs?

Conservation of cheetahs has a very special significance for the national conservation ethic and ethos. The very name 'cheetah' (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) originates from Sanskrit and means 'the spotted one'. The historical range of the cheetah in India encompassed the entire country except the high mountains, coasts and the northeast region. The main reasons for the decline of cheetahs in India were largescale capture of animals from the wild for coursing, bounty and sport hunting, extensive habitat conversion along with consequent decline in prey base. The last cheetahs in the wild were recorded in 1948 when three cheetahs were shot in the Sal forests of Koriya District, Chhattisgarh, with a few sporadic reports of sighting from central and Deccan regions till mid-1970s. Thus, the main goal of the cheetah reintroduction project in India is to establish viable cheetah metapopulation in India that allows the cheetah to perform its functional role as a top predator and provides space for the expansion of the cheetah within its historical range thereby contributing to its global conservation efforts. However, this is not a species recovery programme but an effort to restore ecosystems, allow ecosystems to provide services to their full potential, and use the cheetah as an umbrella species for conserving biodiversity. Bringing back a top predator restores historic evolutionary balance resulting in cascading effects on various levels of the ecosystem leading to better management and restoration of wildlife habitat (grasslands, scrublands and open forest ecosystems), conservation of cheetah's prey and sympatric endangered species and a top-down effect of a large predator that enhances and maintains the diversity in lower trophic levels of the ecosystems. It is also observed that among large carnivores, conflict with human interests is lowest for cheetahs. They are not a threat to humans and do not attack large livestock either.

Where are the Cheetas Being Sourced from Southern Africa?

The locally extinct cheetahsubspecies of India is found in Iran and is categorized as critically endangered. An important consideration during such conservation efforts is that the sourcing of animals should not be detrimental for the survival of the source population. Since it is not possible to source the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah from Iran without affecting this subspecies, India is sourcing cheetahs from Southern Africa, which can provide India with substantial numbers of suitable cheetah for several years. Cheetahs from Southern Africa have the maximum observed genetic diversity among extant cheetah lineages, an important attribute for a founding population stock. Moreover, the Southern African cheetahs are found to be ancestral to all the other cheetah lineages including those found in Iran. Hence, this was deemed to be ideal for India's reintroduction programme. For the purpose, the Government of India and Government of the Republic of Namibia entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on wildlife conservation and sustainable biodiversity utilization, in July 2022, for establishing the cheetah into the historical range in India. The main thrust areas of the MoU are:

·         Biodiversity conservation with specific focus on conservation and restoration of cheetah in their former range areas from which they went extinct;

·         Sharing and exchange of expertise and capacities aimed at promoting cheetah conservation in the two countries;

·         Wildlife conservation and sustainable biodiversity utilization by sharing good practices in technological applications, mechanisms of livelihood generation for local communities living in wildlife habitats, and sustainable management of biodiversity;

·         Collaboration in areas of climate change, environmental governance, environmental impact assessments, pollution and waste management, and other areas of mutual interest;

·         Exchange of personnel for training and education in wildlife management, including sharing of technical expertise, wherever relevant.

 

Where will the Cheetahs Go?

From the 10 potential sites evaluated for the feasibility of establishing cheetah populations in India, based on International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines for reintroductions that consider species viability according to demography, genetics and socioeconomics of conflict and livelihoods, Kuno National Park (KNP) was considered ready for receiving cheetah with the least management interventions. Spread over an area of 748 sq. km, KNP has suitable habitat and an adequate prey base. It is devoid of human settlements and forms part of SheopurShivpuri deciduous open forest landscape. It is estimated to have a capacity to sustain 21 cheetahs. Once restored, the larger landscape will be able to hold about 36 cheetahs. The carrying capacity can be further enhanced by including the remaining part of the Kuno Wildlife Division (1,280 sq km) through prey restoration. Kuno is probably the only wildlife site in the country where there has been a complete relocation of villages from inside the park. Kuno also offers the prospect of housing four big cats, tiger, lion, leopard and cheetah, and allowing them to coexist as in the past

 

The other sites recommended for holding and conservation breeding of cheetah in India, in controlled wild conditions are:

·         Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary, Madhya Pradesh

·         Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary - Bhainsrorgarh Wildlife Sanctuary Complex, Madhya Pradesh

·         Shahgarh bulge in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

·         Mukundara Tiger Reserve (as fenced enclosure), Rajasthan

 

The reintroduction of cheetah into the wild is a step towards correcting an ecological wrong and moving towards fulfilling India's commitment towards Mission LiFE (Lifestyle for the Environment). India has been using frameworks for behaviour change in connection with the environment and climate. And Mission LiFE promotes the idea of an environmentally-conscious lifestyle that focuses on 'mindful and deliberate utilisation' instead of 'mindless and wasteful consumption'. The mission was introduced by the Prime Minister during the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in 2021. Mission LiFE aims to utilise the power of collective action and nudge individuals across the world to undertake simple climate-friendly actions in their daily lives. The LiFE movement, additionally, also seeks to leverage the strength of social networks to influence social norms surrounding climate. The Mission plans to create and nurture a global network of individuals, namely 'Pro-Planet People' (P3), who will have a shared commitment to adopt and promote environmentally friendly lifestyles. Through the P3 community, the Mission seeks to create an ecosystem that will reinforce and enable environmentally friendly behaviours to be self-sustainable. The Mission envisions replacing the prevalent 'use-and-dispose' economy-governed by mindless and destructive consumptionwith a circular economy, which would be defined by mindful and deliberate utilization.

 

Compiled by Anuja Bhardwajan & Annesha Banerjee Source: PIB/MoEF&CC