African Cheetahs Will Be Reintroduced to India 70 Years After Local Extinction
Efforts are currently underway to re-introduce cheetahs, which were declared locally extinct almost 70 years ago, to India. As evaluations of habitats across the country for conduciveness to the African cheetahs have begun, experts say bringing in cheetahs could be a valuable step towards conservation of the species, as well as of the ecosystem.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled to allow the cheetah’s re-introduction and appointed a three-member expert committee to carry out a technical evaluation of re-introduction sites — factoring in topography, safety, and prey availability for cheetahs transferred from Namibia.
When the discourse on re-introduction of cheetahs had first begun some decades ago, the plan was to translocate Asiatic cheetahs to India, since they were understood to share greater similarities to the subspecies that previously existed here. The only remaining Asiatic cheetahs are in Iran. Due to their declining population, which is now estimated at below 50, Iran declined to part with any cheetahs, and chose to focus on their conservation in their present habitat.
DNA tests of the African cheetahs from Namibia have shown that the subspecies is 89% similar to the Asiatic one — a salient consideration in the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the translocation. “All cheetahs are one species with many subspecies,” M.K. Ranjitsinh, Ph.D., an authority on wildlife and nature conservation in India and one of the authors of India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, told IndiaSpend.
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Some experts note that introducing the African subspecies can have a range of benefits. “Re-introducing cheetahs in India will help relieve pressure on the species by creating additional habitat, which the cheetah desperately needs to survive. It will also help increase the species’ genetic diversity,” Laurie Marker, a conservation biologist who founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund, a research and lobby institution in Namibia, wrote in Down To Earth in 2018.
However, despite the benefits to the species, experts note that re-introductions present an ethical dilemma: the suffering of individual animals during re-introduction efforts. “[But] in order to enhance biodiversity and offer a multitude of life forms on earth a fair chance to reestablish, some individuals may need to experience hardship; that is, the envisaged consequences justify the means,” a paper published earlier this year argues. It also notes that guidelines to carefully monitor the re-introduction to minimize the suffering of individual animals should be of paramount importance in re-introduction processes.
Moreover, some experts argue that re-introduction benefits not only the species itself, but also the environment they live in. “Re-introductions of large carnivores have increasingly been recognized as a strategy to conserve threatened species and restore ecosystem functions… India now has the economic ability to consider restoring its lost natural heritage for ethical as well as ecological reasons,” a 2010 report by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) assessing the feasibility of re-introducing the animal to the Indian landscape, noted.
The WII paper notes that the re-introduction of the cheetah, a large predator, would help in restoring “historic evolutionary balance” by “enhanc[ing] and maintain[ing] the diversity in lower trophic levels of the ecosystems.” Experts state that the re-introduction could play an important role in ecological conservation by restoring the original habitats of the cheetah alongside its biodiversity — including not just its prey-base, but also its co-predators — some of which are themselves on the brink of extinction.
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Ranjitsinh also explained the re-introduction of cheetahs could help draw much-needed attention to the conservation of India’s grasslands and species endemic to it, which are often overlooked. “You take up flagship species to focus on different ecotypes and biomes. We use this because, in India, symbolism matters a great deal. In the process of getting cheetahs, if we assess our grasslands and work on them to make them suitable for the introduction, we will have already achieved a lot,” he added.
Previously, India was considering several sites across Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh for the re-introduction of the cheetah — but, at present, it appears that efforts have been focused on Madhya Pradesh. “Madhya Pradesh had in the past been home to cheetahs. The state has a long conservation history; we have the habitat,” J.S. Chauhan, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, told the press.
The last cheetah spotted in India was hunted in Chhattisgarh in 1947. Subsequently, in 1952, the cheetah was declared extinct in India.
“Initially, we thought we would get 10 cheetahs to begin with and get them acclimatized. We don’t yet know how many in total… Look, it is a challenging project but it is worth trying [rather] than saying it is difficult and not doing it at all,” Ranjitsinh noted.