HITTING THE BULL’S EYE Cheetah project is both cruel and unrealistic

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HITTING THE BULL’S EYE Cheetah project is both cruel and unrealistic

Thursday, 22 September 2022 | BISWARAJ PATNAIK

One Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of ‘Koriya’ then in Madhya Pradesh and now part of Chhattisgarh is believed to have killed the last three recorded cheetahs of India in 1947. His ancestors keep saying until now that the king killed the violent cats to save human lives. Whatever be the truth, cheetahs vanished from the Indian soil 70 years ago. The bigger reason is that the beautiful cats became extinct in India primarily because of habitat loss and hunting for their distinctive spotted coats. Currently, the cheetah is listed as an extremely ‘vulnerable’ species as mentioned boldly in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s latest list of ‘Threatened Species’ of 2021. Sadly, there are only 6,517 mature cheetah individuals left in the world specifically native to Botswana, Chad, Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe in Africa and only Iran in Asia with only a frighteningly meagre number of less than fifty Asiatic cheetahs roaming the forests in fear.

No one knows why the Indian Government decided to torture the near-extinct cat in a location far away from home and with dissimilar habitat and uncertain prey base. Earlier until 2013, the Supreme Court had put its foot down firmly on having cheetahs translocated from a distant land saying, “At this stage, in our view, the decision taken by MoEF for introduction of African cheetahs first to Kuno and then the Asiatic lion is arbitrary and illegal and clear violation of the statutory requirements provided under the Wildlife Protection Act. The order of MoEF to introduce African cheetahs into Kuno cannot stand in the eye of Law and the same is quashed.” India’s pleading later with Iran to part with a couple of cheetahs was rebuffed sternly as it would impoverish its scant forest cover by losing the invaluable cats.

But somehow or the other, the Modi administration lately convinced the Supreme Court to get permission for importing the cats into India. Perhaps the judges who agreed to the cruel proposal are not sensitive to delicate issues of nature conservation. Obviously, they have failed to figure out how vulnerable species of rare animals are most likely to find distant lands hostile and short of prey that keep the cats fit and in good mood. Besides, the temperatures and humidity across the year in India are far different from that in Namibia which has heartlessly sold away eight of its most precious cheetah cats to India. The Indian super brains eventually chose the Kuno forest in Madhya Pradesh to be distantly akin to that of Windhoek’s though in reality the Indian habitat is way different, mainly for lack of grasslands and the exact species that keep Cheetahs fit and in good mood. Across Africa, cheetahs prey on deer and antelopes including springbok, gemsbok, impala, kudu and eland. The Indian ‘cheetah advocates’ have declared that in Kuno forests of MP, deer, antelopes, sambars and black bucks are found in sufficient numbers, which is a big lie. Most of these antelope species have become vulnerable and near-extinct, particularly the black buck. They say huge numbers of sambar and chital would constitute preferred prey for the wild cats, which is again a big lie. Cheetahs survive on black bucks and chinakara, both of which are extinct in Kuno forests. Cheetahs love grasslands to roam freely. Kuno is only a woodland.

Another major constraint is the lack of the required size of grasslands the cheetahs require. 10,000 to 20,000 sqkm of good quality habitat in connected chunks of 2,000 to 3,000 square km each would make cheetahs happy and relaxed. Kuno doesn’t have this luxury. So, the over-hyped ambitious cheetah project is unlikely to succeed. The wildlife-related initiatives suffer from misplaced priorities.

Project Cheetah will cost over Rs 990 crore, other than Rs 500 crore a year on maintenance. The country could have used the money to preserve local species and habitats; for example in preventing further changes in land use, fragmentation and degradation of grasslands and open forest ecosystems, translocating lions to Kuno and moving overhead power transmission lines in critical habitats of the Great Indian Bustard underground.

The cheetah and its prey base will be impossible to maintain in an enclosure. It is also a fact that the cats will not multiply in captivity due to several reasons of anxiety and stress due to change of habitat and everything that they see, hear, smell and taste. The torrential rains, the extreme heat and humidity, the prey species, all put together, will not arouse desire in them to mate and reproduce soon enough. And by the time they become comfortable with the surrounding, they will have become weak and indifferent to life. That’s what the experts say.

The closest kin are the 50 Asiatic cheetahs roaming the Iranian forests, themselves too small in number and too vulnerable as well.

Scientific, logical, consultative, participatory and inclusive decision-making processes do ensure that wildlife conservation efforts deliver on-the-ground results that sustain over time. Such things as these do not happen in India. Real experts have been crying hoarse that India does not have the habitat or prey species for wild, free-roaming African cheetahs. So, the project will not fulfil its aim of regenerating grassland and conserving the same along with many other threatened species such as caracals and the Great Indian Bustard in particular.

The project will be considered a failure if the introduced cheetahs do not survive or fail to reproduce in five years among other things.

Strangely, Modi, our popular PM, was persuaded by some mad creature to celebrate his 72nd birthday by snatching away eight innocent cheetahs from their motherland to put in captivity on the hostile far-off alien soil that cannot provide them their food, natural surrounding or the climate to live happily and multiply. The PM’s birthday celebration has not gone too well with the masses that think clearly.

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