Author: Prerna Singh Bindra
Inviting this big cat to stay is a project that needs long-term commitment. We're ill-equipped for that
So, the stage is set for the return of the cheetah in India, though it is unclear if it can be called a ‘reintroduction’ as it is being touted, given that we are bringing in an exotic species from Namibia. Actually, the Asiatic cheetah, of which barely about 100 survive in Iran, is a distinct subspecies from the north-east Africa cheetah (Carruau, P et al,. ‘Phytogeography, genetic structure and population divergence time of cheetah in Africa and Asia: Evidence for long-term geographic isolates’, 2011. Molecular Ecology). This is a worry, and one wonders how this grand move has circumvented the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, but there is a graver concern, primarily: Are we really committed to giving the cheetah a secure home, and a future?
One appreciates the genuine distress at having lost this magnificent cat, the ‘only large mammal to go extinct in India in the past century’, that prompted this proposal; and the sincere-if foolish-belief that getting the cheetah back will act as a catalyst to save its habitat, India’s fast disappearing grasslands. But let not emotion rule the fray. Let’s clinically examine the issue, before we pour tax-payers’ money into this grand venture.
Since the last cheetahs were shot in 1947, India’s population has exploded from 350 million to over 1.2 billion. Lakhs of acres of forests have been gutted to accommodate the growing need for food and other resources. India’s growth ambitions with its consequent need for coal, power, industry, roads are destroying and fragmenting its wilderness. The discerning reader is aware of the bitter battle to protect every last inch of India’s tigerland from mines, highways and industry. It’s a losing battle, and if we cannot take the concerns of the national animal on board, what hope is there for an exotic cat flown in from foreign shores?
The idea that the cheetah will ‘save’ grasslands by serving as its flagship species is utopian. Consider the plight of the Great Indian Bustard, the ambassador of grasslands. With barely 300 remaining, they may well be the next species to slip into oblivion, unless drastic measures are taken. Now, significantly, one of the habitats considered as a potential area for the cheetah was the Desert National Park in Rajasthan. The then Union Minister of Environment and Forests, Mr Jairam Ramesh, explained that this had to be ruled out because the State was not interested in protecting grasslands but oil interests in the region. And even as this is being written, the process to denotify a large chunk of the park is underway. Why?
The habitat earmarked for the cheetah is now Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh where ecologists fear that grassy patches are diminishing gradually with the growth of woodlands. This succession does not bode well for the cheetah or its prey. Incidentally, Kuno has fragmented connectivity to the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, the only protected area where transient or ‘spill over’ tigers from the Reserve can take sanctuary. Since the tigers were unaware of the grand plan, two of them have taken up residence in Kuno.
Also waiting in line for admission into Kuno are the world’s last Asiatic lions, which Gujarat is refusing to part with. It is critical that the lions get a second home given that it’s a classic case of putting all of one’s eggs in one basket with the risks attendant with that strategy. This will give Gujarat yet another ready excuse to not part with their pride, but if they do come to Kuno, as they must, it will be quite a cat party, with lions, tigers, leopards and cheetahs rubbing shoulders with one another. The ecological consequences of this are something that must be very carefully considered.
The prime concern is how committed are we — the Government and the people of India — to protect the cheetah in perpetuity after the hoopla is over, and the realities of conservation kick in, after Governments and Ministers have changed?
Have we shown a commitment, in word and in deed, to other big cats, and to our indigenous wildlife? Despite the focus on Project Tiger, is it not true that we are struggling to protect every inch of tiger habitat, and in fact have lost no less than 12,000 sq km in the short span of four years? What is the status of the leopard today? Battered, beaten, burnt to death in conflict situations and poached heavily.
When we are desperately grappling to protect habitats for species like the tiger, the elephant and the leopard, why then are we planning to bring in this fragile cat without first securing habitats? We are planning to buy the cheetahs — apparently at some Rs 2 crore each — and have set aside Rs 300 crore for the project, when we grant a mere Rs 80 crore (apart from the Project Tiger budget) annually for our 600-odd Protected Areas and critically endangered indigenous species like the bustard, Gangetic Dolphin, Great One-Horned Rhinocerous. Shouldn’t the funds, and the focus, go into their protection?
Another very important aspect is voluntary relocation of tribals and communities living within sanctuaries and tiger reserves. Many of these people are eager to move out, to enter mainstream society and avail of the opportunities of education, employment, healthcare, denied to them living in remote regions and in Protected Areas. Shouldn’t the priority be to give them the choice of opportunity and a better life and also thus create inviolate areas for wildlife?
Is it wise to introduce a predator, when the issue of man-animal conflict gets graver by the day? With natural prey being scarce, won’t the cheetah take to livestock, leading to a face-off with local communities? Are we ready to face this backlash?
Inviting a big cat to stay is a project that requires long-term commitment, financial investment, political will, support of the people, and local communities. In the current scenario, do we have this? Frankly, no.