Declared extinct in India in 1952, reintroduction of the cheetah in the wild has been marred by fund shortage, lack of habitat and bureaucratic red tape

The fastest man, Usain Bolt, may have won three gold medals for sprinting in the recent Olympics but he will be put to shame if compared to the fastest cat on earth. The cheetah can easily run 100kph or about twice as fast as Bolt and this has been recently tested at Cincinnati Zoo in the first week of August. The authorities there have recorded a 11-year-old cheetah named Sarah run 100 meters in less than six seconds — breaking her own record set in 2009.

“At the Cincinnati Zoo, it is our goal to inspire visitors with wildlife every day and nothing inspires awe like seeing a cheetah running full blast. Sarah is a terrific ambassador for her cheetah cousins in the wild,” said Thane Maynard, the zoo director.

Wildlife specialists consider Asiatic cheetah as a rare sub-species that was officially declared extinct in India by 1952. Also known as the hunting leopard and Indian cheetah, Asiatic cheetah were widely found in the 20th century as its range included southwest Asia from Arabia to India. Cheetah-hunts were often held in India during the Mughal era and the British period. The last wild cheetah in India was recklessly killed by a maharaja in 1947 and today only a few remain in Iran though they are different from those thriving in Africa. Presently a hot debate is underway about re-introducing cheetahs into the wilderness of our country.

Very often, the leopard, which thrives in India despite the population pressure on its habitat, is mistaken for the cheetah. Though both appear alike, their habits and habitats vastly differ. While the cheetah is diurnal and prefers open grasslands, the leopard favours dense forest cover. Unlike the leopard, lion and tiger that deploy an array of arsenal which includes stealth, strength and shock to kill their prey, a cheetah relies on incredible speed to topple and throttle. The cheetah’s need for speed is essential to catch rapid running preys; cheetahs can take off from zero to 95 kmph in just three seconds, thus trouncing even a sports car in acceleration. So swift and energy-consuming is the run that it invariably has to apply brakes after covering a distance of 100 meters. Though fast and furious, the cheetah is fragile and a fastidious creature. The immense physical exertion on the pumping heart and body heat generated by the speedster can be catastrophic if it continues running.

The cheetahs’ lean body with light bone structure, supple spine and bullet-shaped small head helps in its aerodynamic shape. The long muscular tail plays the role of a rudder and blunt claws bite into the ground for traction and amplify its sprint. In totality, the jaws, paws and claws are all synchronised to make the kill within a stipulated time. If the prey is brought down within the timeframe, it is indeed lucky; otherwise the mile-a-minute magic has to be engaged all over again. For every seven trial runs only one is truly targeted for the kill and followed by a happy meal. Some awesome photographs of the cheetah are scheduled to be published in the November issue of National Geographic Magazine .

Even though the name cheetah has its origin in the Hindi word cheete , meaning spotted or speckled, it was unable to outrun its own extinction in India. Many futile attempts were made to reintroduce the animal in the wild. All endeavours have been thwarted due to paucity of funds, lack of suitable landscape, protests, bureaucratic red tape and environmental implications.

B.C. Choudhry, a wildlife consultant based in Dehra Dun, says: “Like the tiger, the cheetah can be a flagship species. The charismatic cheetah can play a powerful role of encompassing a wider set of wildlife and ecological issues if it is reintroduced. It can revive disappearing grasslands and scrublands which, in turn, harbour declining species like blackbucks, Great Indian Bustards, floricans, caracals and desert foxes among others. The cheetah can fill the existing gap of niche predator in the grasslands and keep a check on herbivores instead of culling. The cheetah can truly benefit a whole ecosystem and thus enhance India’s biodiversity quotient.”