Can the cheetahs help India’s grasslands?

March 10, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 04:22 pm IST

A cheetah brought from South Africa was released in February in an enclosure at Palpur, Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh.

A cheetah brought from South Africa was released in February in an enclosure at Palpur, Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh. | Photo Credit: PTI

Since September 2022, India has translocated eight African cheetahs from Namibia and 12 from South Africa. This is part of a long-term conservation plan to re-introduce the wild cat into the country after it became extinct in the 1950s, primarily due to hunting. The aim is to be able to build a self-sustaining population, centred at Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park, which will also contribute to the global survival of the cheetah as a species. Can the cheetahs thrive in India and help India’s grasslands? In a conversation moderated by Jacob Koshy, Rajesh Gopal and Ravi Chellam discuss the question. Edited excerpts:

The government is saying that the first batch of cheetahs from Namibia is gradually acclimatising to Indian conditions though none of the animals have been released into the wild. How long will it be before a clear picture emerges of the success of the translocation exercise?

Rajesh Gopal: From my personal experience with tigers in Sariska, it took two and a half to three years. I’ve not been involved with the cheetah [project], but I imagine it is going to be a little bit difficult as they are in a completely different terrain from what they are used to. Cheetahs are coursers (they run to hunt) and not stalkers like the tiger or leopard, which means they need large tracts of terrain.

Ravi Chellam: In ecology, nothing is linear. But let’s look at the metrics that we want to use. The first, of course, is survival; animals have to survive. But a better indication of success is when they not only survive, but start reproducing and there is a self-sustaining population. Reports indicate that roughly 20 cheetahs are going to be introduced annually for the next 8-10 years and the official Cheetah Action Plan states that in 15 years the project will be considered a success if Kuno reaches an established population of 21 adults. Thus, in 7-8 years, we will introduce about 160 cheetahs.

The Action Plan also says that if the larger habitat of 3,000-5,000 sq km, which is larger than the 748 sq km where they are based, is reasonably protected, the numbers can go up to a maximum of 40. So, this is a real long-term investment, and quite a lot of animals are going to come here regularly from Africa. And the results are [predicted to be] between 21 in 15 years to 36 in 30-40 years. That’s the predicted best-case scenario in the Action Plan.

Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav has said that the cheetah re-introduction programme has a larger goal of improving India’s grasslands. Is this an optimal way to conserve India’s grasslands?

Rajesh Gopal: Maybe yes, because India doesn’t have vast savannah grasslands like Africa from where the animals are coming. We have six or seven of them. Cheetahs have been found in woodlands, but they largely prefer running. So, they do indicate the overall wellness of open areas, meadows and grasslands. If they [grasslands] are okay, that would indicate that ungulate populations (deer and chinkara) and the cheetahs’ usual prey also go there. So, the health of the cheetah population does count as a surrogate marker of the health of the grasslands.

Ravi Chellam: I respectfully disagree. My position on this is a resounding no. If we’re really serious about saving and restoring these open natural ecosystems, including grasslands, we should begin by asking, what are the problems? What led to the degradation and decline of such habitat and what do we need to do to curtail these threats? It is well known that the Great Indian Bustard, the Indian wolf, and the blackbuck, which are all native species and Schedule 1 species (protected species), face declining populations and a diminishing distribution range. As we discussed, it will take 30-40 years for the cheetah to reach a population of 20-40 animals. So, how are they going to save Indian grasslands? The Wasteland Atlas of India still categorises large stretches of open natural ecosystems as wasteland and it doesn’t require a cheetah to come from Africa to change that categorisation. Renewable energy projects are granted large tracts of open natural ecosystems, including grasslands, to establish solar panels. The arrival of the cheetahs is not going to change that.

Have there been instances in ecological or wildlife history where the introduction of a species has actually contributed to the development of a larger ecosystem?

Rajesh Gopal: The tiger is a case in point. We started with nine reserves and now we have 53 reserves making up 2.3% of the country’s geographical area. These areas used to be destinations for game hunting and dogs. While they had good diversity of flora and fauna, their surroundings were poorly managed. It took a lot of work by scientists to establish source and sink dynamics. The concept of how exclusively investing in an umbrella will bring in a compelling, inclusive engagement with people and areas beyond emerged from the Project Tiger experience.

Ravi Chellam: Globally, the one that comes to mind is the reintroduction of wolves and the Yellowstone (U.S.) ecosystem, and also beavers. There are several such examples which are based on solid science. Unfortunately, I’m unable to certify that our current data action plan is based on good science because the numbers don’t add up. The average home-range size for cheetahs in the best of habitats in East Africa is 750 sq km. Cheetahs are the weakest of the large cats. They exist in low densities of less than one per 100 sq km. Let’s be generous and say 750 sq km can host 8-10 cheetahs, but that doesn’t make a viable population. Even the best-case estimate is 21 cheetahs, which is not a viable population. The government talks of ‘meta-population management,’ but given India’s approach to conservation, the challenges that we face, the level of human presence that we have to engage with and deal with, I think we are shooting far beyond what is feasible.

One of the government’s aims is to introduce ecotourism initiatives as part of its long-term plans. While creating alternate livelihoods for local populations in Kuno is a laudable proposition, can ecotourism and conservation go hand in hand?

Rajesh Gopal: I have some reservations about tourism. I’m not a great fan of it because experience shows that people overdo it. Any tourism plan must be community-driven. One should be very specific and careful about the kind of infrastructure which will crop up all around. Nothing compares to seeing an animal in the wild, but this should be allowed very gradually. Now, we need to wait.

Ravi Chellam: You have to make it happen. You can’t function in a vacuum. But as Dr. Gopal said, there are challenges. We see these at Tiger Reserves, especially the more popular ones. And it’s not just restricted to tourists getting into the wildlife area; it is the facilities and the infrastructure that we develop, who we bring, what employment is given to whom, why local communities are thrown out and a whole host of social and other issues that we need to deal with. But getting back to the cheetahs... there were announcements that cheetah safaris would start in February. We are already in March. Now is not the time to be talking about tourism in the context of cheetahs. If the cheetah project is really about conservation, let’s get our conservation act together first.

The Kuno park was originally prepared for lions from Gir in Gujarat and they haven’t reached there. Do you think that the focus on the cheetahs has compromised the future of our burgeoning lion population? Or do you think it’s plausible, as the government says, that all three cats can coexist in relative harmony over time?

Ravi Chellam: See, there is the ecological principle. And there is a more important fundamental issue we need to look at, which is the rule of law. On April 15, 2013, the Supreme Court had said the lions should be translocated from Gir to Kuno within six months. Ten years later, the lions still haven’t been moved. Lions and cheetahs co-existed earlier in India when a few thousand sq km were available. We had an overlapping distribution of lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs. It depends on the local habitat: the more open, flatter habitats would have had lions and cheetahs, while the denser habitats would have had leopards and tigers. In Africa, even today, lions, leopards and cheetahs coexist. So, ecologically, there is no issue. But from a conservation perspective, all our eggs are in one basket with the Gir lions.

Rajesh Gopal: Kuno is not the only viable destination for lions; there are other places where this can be thought of. You need geographical isolation, separation to ensure reproductive isolation, because the phenotype reflects in the genotype.

Rajesh Gopal, a former forest officer closely involved with Project Tiger, now heads the Global Tiger Forum; Ravi Chellam is member of an expert committee to guide the translocation of the Asiatic Lion, and CEO, Metastring Foundation

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