We hunted them to extinction. Now, we make room for them where there is none

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Why reintroduce the cheetah when we can’t protect what we already have?

By Ashish Kothari, Member, Kalpaviksh Evironment Action Group

Looking eastward The cheetahs will be imported from Africa and Iran
Looking eastward
The cheetahs will be imported from Africa and Iran

SIXTY YEARS after its disappearance, the Cheetah may be reintroduced into India. Several of these cats from Africa and Iran are proposed to be released at three sites identified by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) — Kuno Palpur and Nauradehi in Madhya Pradesh and Shahgarh near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. The government is considering a substantial budget for this project — reportedly Rs 300 crore for the first year.

I share the excitement of several conservationists at the prospect of something precious we lost coming back, and am here not commenting on its desirability or ecological feasibility. However, a number of unresolved issues make me uncomfortable.

First, big charismatic mammals are once again hogging the already limited attention that wildlife gets. There are scores of highly endangered amphibians, birds and plants that still survive in India, but could die out devoid of attention. Maybe a few decades later when society matures enough to lament their death, we will try to recreate them. To say that any new programme of this scale will not divert resources (technical, human, political) from other deserving species, is to pretend that we have unlimited resources for conservation.

Secondly, the proposal entails the relocation of about 100 human settlements (though many are small). Displacement of people has been a disaster in all but a tiny handful of cases. Resettlement from Kuno Palpur, for establishing a lion population, has led to impoverishment and dispossession.

The WII/WTI report talks of offering “generous and adequate” compensation. But this has been assured in every previous case of relocation, yet conceptual deficiencies and implementational failures have left people in the lurch. Even the ongoing relocations from many tiger reserves are being carried out in violation of legal, social and economic guarantees; only a tiny minority have gone relatively well due to NGO involvement. Who will ensure that this changes, if it is the same bureaucracy that is to carry out the new relocations? Are there enough committed NGOs to ensure everything goes well?

MOREOVER, THE situation is now different, since the Forest Rights Act offers people rights to forest resources and development facilities. Villagers must be explained all their options. Decisions on relocation in the new scenario would be on the basis of peoples’rights, rather than only on the power of the state.

Third, human-wildlife conflicts are on the rise everywhere. Crop damage by monkeys, pigs, nilgai and elephants is driving farmers to desperation in over a dozen states. Conflicts with big cats too are serious in many states.

Crop damage by monkeys, pigs, nilgai and elephants are driving farmers to desperation in many states

The WII/WTI report recognise that the Cheetah may prey on small livestock, and suggests that “a generous, well planned, fool-proof compensation system for livestock damage needs to be implemented at each reintroduction site”. Nice words… but all official compensation packages in India have been failures. The report recommends NGO involvement (which has indeed helped in some places), but on the scale needed the responsibility would still be primarily of the current, discredited bureaucracy. Should we not insist on some successful large scale attempts at dealing with existing conflicts, before introducing a brand new one?

If the above issues are not resolved before deciding on the Cheetah reintroduction, both people and wildlife may suffer, as new hostilities and enmities are created in an already volatile atmosphere.

ashishkothari@vsnl.com

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