For centuries, four charismatic big cats co-existed in India. This is the story of two felines that are now, probably inadvertently, pitted against each other: the Asiatic lion and the African cheetah. Both lions and cheetahs came to the country through a process of natural dispersal from Africa thousands of years ago and roamed its drier and more open habitats. Cheetahs had a more extensive distribution than lions — there are no records of lions occurring south of the Narmada River, but Asiatic cheetahs roamed most of India until they were hunted to extinction by 1947.
Now, plans are afoot to introduce the African cheetah in India: in five years, 12-14 adult cheetahs (8-10 males and 4-6 females) from countries in southern Africa will be released in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park, the same site that scientists have already identified to reintroduce the Asiatic lion, which had a close brush with extinction in the late 1800s and early 1900s, to mitigate risks and enhance the conservation status of the species that is now restricted to a single population in and around Gir forest in Gujarat.
The proposal to introduce the African cheetah — a controversial one — is not new. The idea was first floated in 2009. Then in 2013, a judgment of the Forest Bench of the Supreme Court on lion translocation found massive flaws with the proposed introduction of African cheetahs to Kuno.
“ ... the decision to introduce African Cheetahs into the same proposed habitat chosen for re-introduction of Asiatic lion has not been either placed before the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wild Life, nor has there been a consistent decision,” the judgment said. “MoEF [the Ministry of Environment and Forest], in our view, has not conducted any detailed study before passing the order of introducing foreign cheetah to Kuno. Kuno is not a historical habitat for African cheetahs, no materials have been placed before us to establish that fact... We may indicate that our top priority is to protect Asiatic lions, an endangered species and to provide [them] a second home... Crores of rupees have been spent by the Government of India and the State of Madhya Pradesh for reintroduction of Asiatic lion to Kuno. At this stage, in our view, the decision taken by MoEF for introduction of African cheetahs first to Kuno and then Asiatic lion, is arbitrary and illegal and a clear violation of the statutory requirements provided under the Wild Life Protection Act. The order of MoEF to introduce African Cheetahs into Kuno cannot stand in the eye of Law and the same is quashed.”
As is evident, the Supreme Court was very clear in its reasoning and categorical in its order with respect to introducing African cheetahs into India. Unfortunately, the reality of how conservation is practised in India is that it often flouts the law and at times even lacks a scientific foundation and conservation logic.
No tangible action
Nine years since the 2013 order, the reality is stark. The lions have not yet been translocated and the plans to introduce African cheetahs have not ceased. The Expert Committee appointed by the Supreme Court in 2013 to advise the government on lion translocation, of which I am a member, hasn’t met since December 2016. In our last meeting in Kuno, everyone, apart from the representatives of the Gujarat State government, strongly stated that Kuno was ready to receive the lions. But neither the Centre nor the government of Gujarat have taken any tangible action to translocate the lions.
On the contrary, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a statutory body of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), has filed affidavits in the Supreme Court stating that the cheetah introduction will not impact the reintroduction of lions in any adverse manner. NTCA’s application states that the 2013 order of the Supreme Court does not impose a blanket ban on introduction of cheetahs in India and by implication has sought the court’s permission to explore the introduction of African cheetahs to sites other than Kuno.
The Supreme Court in its order of 2020 had stated: “It is submitted that African Cheetahs would be introduced on an experimental basis in a careful chosen habitat and nurtured and watched to see whether it can adapt to the Indian conditions. In case there are some difficulties noticed about the location in which it is introduced, we are informed that the location would be changed to another forest which is more habitable for the animals.” The order went on to appoint an expert committee to guide the NTCA to conduct field surveys to choose the best location for African cheetahs in India and to take a careful decision about the viability of introducing this animal on a larger scale. It ordered the expert committee to submit reports to the court every four months.
I am not aware if the expert committee submitted reports every four months to the Supreme Court in 2020. The Assessment of Cheetah Introduction Sites and Proposed Actions — Technical Note , published in January 2021 by the Wildlife Institute of India and the forest departments of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, gives details of the site visits that were undertaken in 2020 to assess the potential sites in the two States for cheetah introduction. They were Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve, Shergarh Wildlife Sanctuary, Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kuno National Park, Madhav National Park, and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary.
In a period of 12 days, the field assessments of six sites were conducted, with some sites assessed for less than a day. Kuno, the best studied site, was surveyed for the longest period of four days. It denotes a rushed approach that does not inspire much confidence in the field surveys. In fact, it seems very much as if the expert committee had already decided that Kuno would be the site for cheetah introduction even prior to these field surveys.
The technical note merely says that due to delays in lion reintroduction, Kuno was considered for cheetah introduction in 2010, and the NTCA affidavits assert that cheetah introduction will not impact lion reintroduction.
On January 5 this year, the MoEFCC unveiled an action plan to introduce cheetahs in India. The plan states: “Once a cheetah population is established in Kuno National Park, reintroduction of the lion or colonization by tigers would not be detrimental for cheetah persistence.” This by implication could further delay the reintroduction of lions to Kuno by at least a decade if not more as the cheetahs have to establish themselves as a viable population first, an argument for delaying lion translocation that was posed by the Gujarat government and summarily rejected by the Supreme Court in 2013.
The action plan says that the cheetah, as a flagship species, could evoke a greater focus on the predicament of the much-abused dry, open forest/ savanna ecosystems and the need to restore and manage them. This is a laudable objective but there are far more direct, faster and less expensive ways to achieve it. For starters, if the central government is serious about protecting these habitats, it should immediately abolish the land category of ‘wasteland’ that much of the country’s dry, open forest/ savanna ecosystems are currently categorised as. It should also ensure that no further fragmentation, degradation or change in land use is allowed in these habitats. This could have an almost immediate on-ground conservation outcome. This could be more efficient than embarking on cheetah introduction, which, in its first phase of five years, will cost ₹39 crore. Instead, we are adopting a lop-sided and illogical approach to conserve these neglected ecosystems and their native fauna and flora.
I am convinced that the sites in which the cheetah would be introduced would largely end up as glorified fenced safari parks rather than wild landscapes with self-sustaining populations. According to the estimates in the action plan, even Kuno, which has been chosen as the first site for the cheetah introduction (since it is ready with the required level of protection, prey, and habitat), can sustain only 21 cheetahs. Once a cheetah population establishes itself in about 15 years, the predicted scenario is that the dispersers will colonise the landscape and potentially hold 36 individuals in 30-40 years. This begs the question: is this a truly science-based conservation initiative or an expensive vanity project that will further delay the translocation of the endangered lions?
Since 2018, dozens of lions have died from diseases, including canine distemper, opening up a frightening possibility of loss when confined to a single location. Establishing an additional free-ranging wild lion population in Kuno is of paramount importance and roadblocks, if any, must be transparently addressed. Clearly, the introduction of African cheetahs cannot take precedence over translocating Asiatic lions from Gujarat to Kuno National Park as ordered by none other than the apex court in 2013.
The writer is CEO, Metastring Foundation, and member, Biodiversity Collaborative.