Speed Spots

Published: May 18, 2012 - 16:18 Updated: May 18, 2012 - 18:35

The cheetah, mass murdered in India, could soon be chasing chinkara in the Indian grasslands bringing back the golden age when it hunted throughout the vast plains

Akash Bisht  Delhi

Concealed in the tall grass, he moves like a ghost, occasionally raising his head to check any movement by the gazelle. One wrong move or a moment of haste could blow his cover and he would have to sleep hungry. His spotted coat acts as a perfect camouflage in the tall savanna grass of the plain as he creeps closer to his prey with great precision. Fixated on the gazelle, he suddenly makes a lightning dash, accelerating from 0 to 45 mph 2.5 seconds, outrunning the gazelle. A  bite on the neck and the kill is secured.

Masters of fast food, cheetahs run fast, kill fast and even eat fast. With a top speed of 70 miles an hour, the cheetah resembles a spotted greyhound more than any of its own species. Small head, large chest, tiny waist, this speed devil is built for the kill.

Wildlife lovers rate the cheetah’s hot pursuits as the finest and most cinematic in the entire animal kingdom. A routine affair in the African grasslands, these high-speed, action-packed scenes could soon be played out in India's grasslands and scrub forests too. If all goes well, the cheetah, mass murdered in India, could soon be chasing chinkaras bringing back the golden age when they hunted throughout the vast plains. Unfortunately, it is the only large predator to have gone extinct in the country in the past 100 years.

Providing fresh impetus to the Cheetah Reintroduction Programme, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has released Rs 1.9 crore to Madhya Pradesh (MP) to prepare for the cats' arrival in the Kuno-Palpur sanctuary where they will be released. “We have sanctioned Rs 1.9 crore to MP to facilitate the programme,” SP Yadav, DIG, NTCA, told Hardnews.

Jairam Ramesh, former environment minister, pushed the Cheetah Reintroduction Programme in 2009 amidst great fanfare. “We have to get them back from abroad to repopulate the species here,” Ramesh had said. Initially, the government had decided to import cheetahs from Iran but their precarious numbers there (only 70 left) forced the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) to turned to Africa that has more than 12,000 animals.

Some scientists had raised the issue of genetic difference between the Asiatic and African cheetah. It was put to rest after Stephen JO Brian, the leading authority on DNA analysis in wildlife, gave a green signal. It was then decided that India would import 18 cheetahs in a phased manner. Sources told Hardnews that at least nine cheetahs have been shortlisted and are being closely monitored by experts in Namibia before their relocation.

The project was coursing smoothly before it got entangled in a legal battle, now in the apex court. The tussle is between the MoEF and Gujarat government on handing over of Asiatic lions and the cheetahs are yet to reach India.

Citing a technical report of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the Gujarat government has argued that lions should be relocated only after the cheetahs have established themselves in Kuno. The report also mentioned the threat that lions pose to cheetahs, a fact used by Gujarat in its defence. The Narendra Modi government also questioned the level of preparedness of the MP forest department that had lost all its tigers to poaching in Panna three years ago.

Engaged in this legal battle for 20 years, the Centre and MP government have failed to convince Modi to part with a few lions — a symbol of ‘Gujarati pride’. A survey conducted by the Gujarat government revealed that 94 per cent of the people voted against relocating lions. “If you expect Modi to part with Gujarati pride in an election year then you must be out of your head. Would he concede defeat in an election year?” said a veteran wildlife expert.

 “Despite several requests from members of the wildlife board, Atal Behari Vajpayee, then prime minister, didn’t pressurise Modi to hand over the lions and that golden opportunity was lost. I don’t see any softening of his stand and we will have to wait for him to be voted out to see lions in Kuno,” says a senior official.

Originally meant for relocating Asiatic lions from the Gir National Park, the Kuno wildlife sanctuary in MP was also shortlisted as an ideal cheetah habitat for its open grasslands and scrub forests. The presence of cheetah prey was also considered before zeroing in on Kuno.

The decision to introduce cheetahs before lions has opened a can of worms. Many conservationists, including environment ministry officials, have expressed serious aspersions over the project. “We have not been able to provide fool-proof safety to tigers and leopards, then why should we insist on getting the cheetah? It’s like a child demanding a particular toy and if you can’t find one, you buy him another,” says a ministry official.

'Who says there are no grasslands? How does one explain rhino presence in Punjab and Haryana in the past? How did Babar kill rhinos in Hisar?'

“Our own existing species are in dire straits and cheetah is not even endemic to India. Why spend so much on an exotic species and not on the indigenous grasslands species like the Great Indian Bustard, Great Flamingo, among others?” says Dr Kaustabh Sharma of the Snow Leopard Trust.

Experts have raised doubts about the presence of cheetah prey — blackbuck and chinkara—in Kuno. The blackbuck have gone locally extinct and there is no scientific research to prove the reasons for their disappearance. Even the chinkara population is dwindling and could hardly support a large cheetah coalition — mostly brothers who hunt together.

“We hardly have any natural grasslands, most of them are man-made. If you visit Kuno, you will see the forest growing back and the grasslands disappearing. So how can you release cheetahs there on the pretext of grasslands?” says another scientist.

However, Dr YV Jhala of WII and MK Ranjitsinh of WTI, the ‘inspiration’ behind the Cheetah Reintroduction Programme, rubbish these claims and sight the long-term gains. “Who says there are no grasslands? Those who say this do not know the history of this country. We had extensive grasslands, otherwise how does one explain rhino presence in Punjab and Haryana in the past? How did Babar kill rhinos in Hisar? In fact, these grasslands came into existence after forests were cleared for agricultural purposes,” says Ranjitsinh. However, with grasslands under great distress from livestock grazing, the possibility of human-animal conflict cannot be ruled out.

Jhala refutes the exotic tag. He argues that cheetahs became extinct in India as a result of human greed. “Cheetah is not just a grassland animal, it also lives in open scrub forest. The ‘TV chases’ of cheetahs are of Serengeti, Kenya, while the Selous Game Reserve with its scrub forests has the largest density of cheetahs in the world. So how can they claim that it is primarily a grassland species?”

Jhala says that Rs 300 crore will be spent on the programme; this will help the entire habitat and its species, and not just cheetahs. “This money will be spent in protecting and restoring the habitat and would also mean reviving populations of other grassland species. This is equivalent to Project Tiger that has not only helped in restoring tiger populations, but also of other species ,” says Jhala.

The issue of cheetah breeding in captivity has also been under the scanner. Historical evidence suggests that this was one of the crucial reasons behind its extinction. Jahangir, son of Akbar, had written about breeding of cheetahs. In one of his memoirs, he writes, “It is an established fact that cheetahs in unaccustomed places, do not pair off with a female, for my revered father once collected together 1,000 cheetahs. He was very desirous that they should pair, but this in no way came off. He had many times coupled male and female cheetahs together in the gardens, but there, too, it did not come far off.” Used for hunting blackbuck and antelopes, the Mughals had a fleet of these animals that accompanied them on their royal hunts. Akbar is known to have had more than 9,000 cheetahs in captivity.  

In South Africa, the experiment of breeding cheetahs in captivity has been very successful and many see this as a silver lining to the cloud. “Cats breed like rats and it’s the easiest of tasks. They just need protection and a prey base,” says Dr Sharma. With tiger protection in the doldrums across several reserves in the country, questions about the cheetahs’ welfare have been far too many. That is why the government has decided to fence the entire Kuno sanctuary to avoid human animal conflict.

A ministry official rubbishes all such aspersions. “It is foolish to say that lions would eat the cheetahs. They have co-existed for centuries and will continue to do so. Even if five cheetahs out of 15 die, then also we will have a healthy population of the species,” he says.

More than 150 cheetahs are legally hunted every year in Africa and the Namibian government issues licences to kill these predators. The whole process of buying and transporting cheetahs to India has been funded and project supporters don’t see any harm in introducing these animals that would otherwise fall victim to some gun-totting millionaire. Like the tiger, the cheetah too could be a flagship species for the grasslands and help several other animals and wildlife to grow and flourish in these ecological hotbeds.

The great endeavour could make India the only hotbed of wildlife where four large cat species co-exist. And it would be a matter of pride to have a superior version of Serengeti where lions, cheetahs, leopards and tigers eat, live and kill together.

The cheetah, mass murdered in India, could soon be chasing chinkara in the Indian grasslands bringing back the golden age when it hunted throughout the vast plains
Akash Bisht  Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews