Let Sleeping Cats Lie

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Is the majestic cheetah’s proposed return to India a dream come true or just foolish fantasy, asks Prerna Singh Bindra

Spot feline A cheetah on the plains of the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya
Spot feline A cheetah on the plains of the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya

THE OBITUARY of the cheetah — that lithe, beautiful cat known for its remarkable burst of speed — was written in 1947. Though its death was triggered by a host of reasons, the last damning bullets were fired by the Maharaja of the erstwhile state of Korea in Madhya Pradesh. Driving through the forest one night he came across, and killed, three males “in perfect condition”. This was the last record of the animal in India: the cheetah would now only be found in the – annals of history.

But history, it now appears, might be rewritten. If an ambitious plan proposed by WTI (Wildlife Trust of India) goes through, the cheetah will soon be back in India. The first instinctive reaction is sheer joy. The idea is heady. The Return of the Cheetah. Back from Neverland. Extinction is not forever. Picture it in your mind: the beautiful ash-gold cat bounding powerfully over golden grasslands, closing in on its prey…

Which is about the moment the dream sours. Where are the verdant grasslands where the cheetah will live, hunt, mate, breed — the wilds where we plan to reintroduce them?

According to the Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, “In the next few months, India hopes to be in a position to reintroduce the cheetah in captivity and, sooner rather than later, into the wild as well.” But the optimism could be misplaced. This is not the first time India has considered bringing the cheetah back – the idea has been bandied about for years, almost from the time we lost the cat. Way back in 1960, pioneer conservationist and member of Indian Board for Wildlife M Krishnan had asked, “But where are the sui – table areas? I do not think the trouble and expense of getting a few cheetahs for liberation into an Indian sanctuary is justified. Such an experiment, without established territory can only fail.” This sentiment was echoed by Dehradun-based conservationists HS Panwar and Dr Alan Rodgers who wrote that there “are no suitable areas to reintroduce the cheetah into a ‘wild’ situation in this semi-arid zone or elsewhere in India.” Quite simply, with grasslands now no bigger than 40 square kilometers, we just don’t have the space.

Does India, with its booming population, expanding agriculture and race for development have space for another big cat?

This time, the plan was to get a pair from Iran where the last of the Asiatic Cheetahs survive. But Iran dashed India’s hopes of importing a breeding pair. With their own cheetahs numbering barely 25, the Iranians were simply not willing to take the risk of shipping out two of them to what was a highly ambitious and admittedly iffy venture. They even declined to give a sample of tissue needed for a cloning experiment proposed by the Hyderabad- based Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology. That plan too had its share of problems. Cloning is far from a perfect science, often involving several trials before there is a successful birth. That apart, we have not undertaken even basic scientific research on the cat.

So all along, the question that has plagued the cheetah’s return is the where? Does India, with its burgeoning population and race for development have space for another big cat? Proponents of the project say there are enough potential grassland and scrub forests. Getting the predator back, they argue, will serve to protect these crucial habitats.

But it might be timely to remember that the other feline occupant of the scrub forest — the critically endangered Asiatic Lion — is barely clinging on to 1,400 sq km of habitat. All our big cats, in fact, are trapped in zones of acute man-animal conflict. Fragmented and dwindling habitats are pushing tigers, leopards and lions into areas inhabited by humans, leading to fatal conflicts. Tigers kill livestock or humans and are killed in retaliation. How can one assert that the fate of the cheetah will be any different, when it eventually — and hopefully — roams free?

There is also the vexing problem of the prey base. Though some areas have a fair population of blackbucks — the cat’s preferred diet – their habitats are also steadily being encroached and the blackbucks often stray into agricultural fields. Crop depredation, therefore, is already a highly contentious issue.

It might be prudent to remember, too, that the conditions that made the cheetah extinct in India have only got accentuated. The pressures on its habitat have increased manifold. In 1947, the zero hour for the cheetah, India’s population was barely 30 crore. Today, it is over 1.20 billion. Livestock too has increased fourfold to nearly 500 hundred million. We may no longer capture the ‘hunting leopard’ for royal sport as was done in the past, but there is nothing to deter it being poa ched for the lucrative skin trade.

There are other issues. After Iran refused to share its Asiatic cheetah, the plan now is to source the first breeding pair from Namibia. But should we be importing African cheetahs — a different subspecies (Acinonyx jubatus) than the one that lived, and died, in India — the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus)?

It seems cantankerous to prick the euphoria but our track record on conservation is nothing to be proud of. Our national animal, the tiger, is in deep duress today, with an all time low population of about 1,100. Sixteen tiger reserves — our most sacrosanct protected areas — are in big trouble, with either zero or a negligible numbers of cats.

HOW, THEN, do we justify a fancy multimillion dollar project to bring another big cat into a fraught, tattered kingdom? Is the very fact that there is big money involved encouraging organisations and the government to jump on the bandwagon? Good, long term planning is essential, and critical questions about habitat, prey-base and potential conflicts must be argued out, lest we make the same mess with the cheetah as we have with the tiger. When conservationists, activists and the government get together in Septem – ber 2009 to study the feasibility of this reintroduction, one hopes that the voice of caution will be heard. Let’s first ensure the protection and survival of our existing big cats before we attempt to bring the dead to life. Let’s first ensure that we can give the cheetah a safe home so that it flourishes in the wild, and not revive it merely for a second extinction.

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