The relocation of the wild cats from one continent to another comes with a lot of challenges and questions.
After years of waiting, India is finally going to introduce cheetahs in the wild—70 years after the fastest land animal went extinct in the subcontinent.
Preparations are being made for about eight African cheetahs to be imported from Namibia after the countries signed an agreement last month.
But conservation experts have raised concerns about the initiative that they see as New Delhi’s “vanity project”. India’s habitat is different from the environment the sleek cats are used to in African grasslands.
The cheetahs will live in Madhya Pradesh state’s Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, which was initially dedicated as a home for Asiatic lions found in the neighbouring state of Gujarat.
“What this will turn out to be is a glorified safari park. These animals will be intensively managed with a very hands-on approach which will compromise the ecological role and function that they are expected to play,” says Ravi Chellam, a Bengaluru-based wildlife biologist and conservation scientist.
“These cheetahs will be moved back and forth to enable genetic exchange requiring multiple captures. That is the South African model. Not the Indian way of managing our wildlife,” he tells TRT World.
As per the action plan, India will reintroduce around 50 cheetahs in the coming decade. But only 21 of these fast predators are expected to survive in the wild in the next 15 years.
Such low reproductive and survival rates means it will require several decades to repopulate other parts of India as the government hopes to do, says Chellam. “This is not self-sustaining and will require frequent introduction of a pretty large number of African cheetahs to ensure the survival of the introduced population.”
The area of Kuno National Park is about 750 square kilometres . “The government's best case scenario is that in 15 years, Kuno will be home to 21 cheetahs. Cheetahs live at much lower density than tigers and lions.”
For instance, an area spread over 100 square kilometres might be sufficient for 8 to 10 tigers. But that’s enough space for only one cheetah, he explained.
The trans-continental relocation of cheetahs has become a big project for India, the world's sixth largest economy. It will cost 750 crore Indian rupees (approximately $9.5 million) with much of it coming from state-run Indian Oil Corporation.
Authorities say they have taken all the steps to help the cheetahs reproduce and increase their numbers. Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary has been stocked with deer and other natural prey. Electronic collars will monitor the movement of the cheetahs and they will be kept in a particular area for a few weeks so they can get used to their territory.
Yet, experts are sceptical.
“The African cheetah can never be introduced into the wilds of India,” Valmik Thapar, an Indian wildlife author, told Times of India. “We don’t have any habitat to ensure a natural reintroduction.”
Thapar, author of a controversial book in which he argued that cheetahs were never native to India, says the African cheetahs will face constant threat from feral dogs.
India has done remarkable work in preserving its tiger population. Two centuries ago, more than 50,000 tigers roamed the vast Indian forests. The numbers dwindled to less than 1,500 in 2006. A concerted effort to help grow the population of the magnificent powerful predator helped increase the numbers to 2,967 as per the last count.
This was done via the creation of 50 dedicated reserves, and measures taken to stop poaching.
However, a repeat of that success will prove far more challenging when it comes to cheetahs which are not used to the local conditions.
New Delhi wants to conserve its grasslands with the introduction of cheetahs as they help in balancing the natural ecosystem.
Chellam, who has advised India’s Supreme Court on forest-related matters, says there are indigeneous endangered species which should be the government’s priority.
"If this is about protecting grasslands and other open habitats, then we should focus on the Great Indian Bustard and its habitat. The bird is critically endangered and can go extinct if their protection is not greatly enhanced. Cheetahs are not going to help save them.”
There’s also a legal hurdle which can jeopardise the Cheetah project. In 2013, India’s supreme court ordered the government to halt its plan of introducing cheetahs and instead promote relocation of Asiatic lions to Kuno.
The Kuno park was primarily dedicated for the Indian lions, which live in the Gir region of Gujarat state. Over the years, some 1,500 families from 20-25 villages were resettled in other places to make way for the lions.
The number of Indian lions, mostly concentrated in Gir, has increased to 700 but close to half of them have ventured out of the wild as the area is not big enough to hold so many of them.
“Out of these, some 300 lions are not in the forest. They are in agricultural fields, in villages, on the highways and other human-dominated areas,” says Chellam.
“We have succeeded in conserving tigers and lions but are unwilling to take an objective view to manage our success, as well as in respecting and implementing an order of the Supreme Court of India to translocate lions to Kuno.”