Days after the Supreme Court green-lighted introduction of cheetahs into India , the top scientist at the laboratory for saving extinct species says it will be a challenge. “Our work (the lab’s) on cheetahs has been in the limelight because re-introduction of any species back into nature is as challenging as a moon mission or a mission to mars,” says Karthikeyan Vasudevan of Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species (Lacones).
The SC recently gave the nod to the National Tiger Conservation Authority to reintroduce African cheetahs , nearly 10 years after the plea was first made. “The background extinction rates are over 100 to 1000 times due to various reasons like hunting, destruction of habitat and human intervention. Species die out naturally but when a species becomes extinct unnaturally it is like murder,” said Mr. Vasudevan. “Cheetahs became extinct due to sport hunting and recreation hunting,” he said, adding: “Cheetahs are good antelope hunters. Antelopes are adapted to dry conditions. Historically we have not cared for grasslands as we planted trees for our requirements. We had extensive flat areas but these are gone.”
Mr. Vasudevan said India will need a protocol to introduce wild animals in the country. “The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has a protocol. It has reintroduction specialist groups. It has template guidelines but we need to adapt them to our needs and we have to develop for our own species,” he said. There is a need to create provisions under the Wildlife Act for a policy on introduction of wild animals. Otherwise, citing this (cheetah introduction) many things can be done. We need to safeguard the interests of other species,” he said.
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The laboratory set up in 1998 during the heady days of success after the cloning of Dolly in Scotland has had the goal of breeding cheetahs from the time of its inception. Scientists considered the Iranian cheetahs to be the closest related to the extinct Indian cheetah and have been trying to get the germplasm to carry on with the research, but without success.
One of the success efforts of Lacones has been the reintroduction of mouse deer in the wild with their captive breeding programme in collaboration with the Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad.
The Lacones is building up National Genetic Wildlife Bank which now has the germplasm of 23 species, including red panda, pygmy hog, asiatic lion and gharials. It is one of the few frozen zoos in the world where a repository of germplasm is stored in cryogenic conditions for possible future use.