The Cheetah was officially declared extinct in India in 1952. Thereafter, in 2009, the ‘African Cheetah Introduction Project in India’ was conceived. It is only after a decade of deliberation that further developments have occurred on this front. The Supreme Court set up a three-member committee to guide the reintroduction plan and gave its final approval in January 2020. Subsequently, after a delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the ‘Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India’ was released in 2022. It is planned to translocate 50 cheetahs in the next 5 years, with about 10-12 cheetahs being brought in from South Africa and Namibia in the first year. On an experimental basis, the first site for reintroduction of the Cheetah will be Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, which after a survey of 10 locations, was considered to be the most suitable habitat and prey base for the holding and conservation breeding of the species.
The Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy and Rainmatter Foundation organised THE GREEN MANDATE EP. 4, on the ‘Cheetah Reintroduction in India’ in conversation with noted wildlife conservationist Dr Maharaj Kumar Ranjitsinh (Retd IAS) at India International Centre Annexe, Lecture Room-I (New Delhi) on 26th May 2022, at 6 pm IST.
Some of the highlights from the conversation can be found below:
On the importance of the Cheetah Project
The project apart from receiving cynicism from various sections faces a rather important question, as to why the cheetah needs to be reintroduced?
Before taking on this question, Dr. Ranjitsinh highlights the importance of political will and support for conservation. India has been extremely fortunate that despite the humongous pressure of population, poverty, ignorance, and land hunger, we have not lost in historical time a single large mammalian species. ‘He who goes away becomes a little more dearer than the one you have’, Dr. Ranjitsinh juxtaposes this tale about human kids with the cheetah and emotively iterates, ‘We lost the cheetah. We want it back’. However, it is not just the cheetah but what goes with it. And that is the habitat, you can have the habitat without a wild animal but you cannot have the wild animal without the habitat. The habitat, in this case, is the grassland-forest mosaic. Conservation, by any means, is the utmost priority.
On balancing the population of big cats in Kuno
Big mammalian species capture the public consciousness like nothing else. In that context, cheetahs are likely to be a charismatic species for the public like the tiger. Kuno National Park, the identified site for cheetah reintroduction also has a population of Leopards alongside other wild animals and there are now talks of Tigers and Lions being translocated there. In that context, is Kuno likely to be a conflict zone for the multiple large carnivores it hosts?
Dr. Ranjitsinh reminds us, as is done in Africa, smaller carnivores are introduced first and when it develops a viable population it is unlikely to be driven out of the habitat because of the role of territoriality in animal behaviour and ecology. There will be conflict and occasional killings which happen in their African habitat as well. But what is important is that they can live in juxtaposition with the larger carnivores.
On possible Cheetah-Human conflict
An important concern regarding the cheetah reintroduction is that they are a low-density animal, and Africa is a scarcely populated continent so it has a large area for cheetahs to move around. But India is a densely populated country and Kuno is also a comparatively small protected area with some amount of human interference as well. So assuming that the cheetah reintroduction project is successful and the cheetahs develop a viable population, they will need their area to expand so how will we manage the conflict with human beings?
Unlike the lions and the tigers, there is no record of a cheetah ever killing a human being. In case there is a food security concern, the cheetah is likely to attack the domestic sheep and goats that humans raise. As mentioned earlier there will be some amount of conflict but if maintained properly for cheetahs to develop a viable population, the Kuno National Park area will be transformed.
On the role of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in the Cheetah Introduction Project
Apart from the scientific concerns regarding the project, there is a legal question as well. NTCA has been given a special mandate in this project but the duty of the NTCA is to conserve tigers and their habitats. Would a separate authority to oversee the cheetah reintroduction be more appropriate than the NTCA?
Dr. Ranjitsinh highlights that creating multiple authorities for essentially managing the same area is likely to create multiple hierarchies and might lead to unnecessary bureaucratization. Dr. Ranjitsinh jokingly mentions that we are more territorial than animals and creating multiple hierarchies might lead to the conservation work being stalled.
On the differences between the Cheetah subspecies
Considering the fact that India had Asiatic Cheetah in the past, would the African Cheetah, which is a foreign species to our country, bring back the same glory?
Dr. Ranjitsinh emphasizes that it is not the cheetah versus the lion or the cheetah versus the tiger, it is one more icon in the Indian pantheon. Moreover, the lion and the leopard came from Africa and so did the cheetah. Out of all of them, the cheetah has changed the least. In that sense, it is not possible for a layman to distinguish between the Asiatic Cheetah and the African Cheetah. And in case this project becomes successful, our trained professionals can possibly revive the population of Asiatic Cheetahs in Iran as well.
On the claim that Wildlife Protection Act is anti-people
From a different perspective, noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil has said that the Wildlife Protection Act is anti-people and should be scrapped. People should have the right to defend themselves and their property against wild animals and wildlife should be seen as a renewable resource that should be harvested.
Dr. Ranjitsinh mentions that Madhav Gadgil is a very esteemed friend and highlights that the Wildlife Act contains the right to self-defence (Section 11 proviso 2) for which Dr. Ranjitsinh himself argued for fifteen days while the Wildlife Act was being drafted. But at that time you should not be committing another offence, which means that you should not be in possession of illegal arms. There will be a conflict but you do not have an absolute right to kill wild animals when you are in a protected area which is meant for the wildlife.
On whether the other species also deserve to be in the limelight as icons
We live in a country where conservation is driven on the back of icons like the tiger, lion and now the cheetah. But if we have to look beyond the symbolism of conservation and if we have to choose species that are sensitive for the survival of an ecosystem, would you have any such species in mind that need to be protected?
Dr. Ranjitsinh brings to light multiple species that deserve and require equal efforts for their protection, like the Great Indian Bustard, Kashmiri Stag, Caracal, Nilgiri Tahr and so many others. Moreover, that is the purpose of getting States to adopt a state bird, a state animal and a state tree. So at times, you need to have some type of icon but what is important is the possibility of protecting other animals and the habitat at large on the back of that icon.
On managing the menace of feral dogs in Protected Areas
The feral dogs inhabit both human-dominated and wildlife-dominated areas. They not only are carriers of several zoonotic diseases but also are known to attack and injure various wild animals. In that context, what should an ideal law and policy framework for managing feral dogs in wildlife habitats look like?
Dr. Ranjitsinh highlights that there are over 8000 feral dogs in Ladakh alone, and they have now even started killing human beings. Dr. Ranjitsinh says we have been recommending that under the Wildlife Protection Act, the feral dogs be declared as vermin so they could be eliminated as a threat in the protected areas.