The world’s fastest mammal is set to walk on Indian grasslands again.
Gulf Today Report
The year 1947 is known as a grim one.
It marked the end of existence for India’s Asiatic cheetahs, with Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo, the maharaja of Koriya, a small kingdom located in the central state of Chhattisgarh, hunting down the last of the country’s predators.
With few unconfirmed sightings in subsequent years, the species was declared extinct by the Indian state in 1952.
Now, almost 70 years later, the world’s fastest mammal is set to walk on Indian grasslands again.
Having reached an understanding with South Africa and Namibia, the first batch of African cheetah is expected to arrive by the end of this year — marking the first time that a large carnivore has been relocated from one continent to another.
“Cheetahs are the only large carnivore to have gone extinct since our independence. The main idea is to bring back the only big mammal species that we have lost in peninsular India in historical times,” shares MK Ranjitsinh, an eminent conservationist behind the cheetah introduction programme.
Though India’s supreme court allowed the programme on an experimental basis in January last year, the idea had been around for some time, Mr Ranjitsinh told The Independent.
“I had first proposed the idea back in the early 1970s to then-prime minister Indira Gandhi,” he shares.
“I was negotiating with Iran at the time for 250 Asiatic cheetah. Their Asiatic lion had disappeared while we had 260 lions.”
He got the go-ahead but the plan fell through. “There were several factors. The regime in Iran changed, Ms Gandhi in India fell from power at that time. And by the time she came back in the 1980s the number of cheetah had fallen tremendously.”
While the Asiatic cheetah was originally preferred for the project, this is no longer possible as the cheetah population has plummeted to under 50.
Now classified as a “critically endangered” species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Asiatic cheetah is believed to have survived only in Iran — forcing India to turn to Namibia and South Africa to provide cheetah for its introduction programme.
“For any successful introduction programme, at least 30-40 individuals of a species must be supplied to the location where they are being introduced. There are not these many Asiatic cheetahs alive and therefore the plan fell through,” says Dr YV Jhala, a senior scientist at Wildlife Institute of India, who is overseeing the cheetah introduction programme.
“The closest to Asiatic cheetah is African cheetah. They are the same species. All cheetahs including the Asiatic cheetah originated from Southern Africa.”
Mr Ranjitsinh believes that this programme will bring the much-needed focus to revive the ecology in which cheetah thrives.
“We are a country where symbolism works greatly. If you want to save the forest, it will not have a large-scale appeal. But if you say that you want to save the forest for the tiger or save the mountains for the snow leopard, it registers,” he says.
“The greatest contribution of the Project Tiger is not that we saved the tiger. It is that we saved some of the most important, national, natural heritage which is a part of India, through the agency and the aura of the tiger.
“As a flagship species, the conservation of the cheetah will revive grasslands and its biomes and habitat, much like Project Tiger has done for forests and all the species that have seen their numbers go up.
“While there is a lot of emphasis on the preservation of forests, grasslands are a hugely neglected habitat in the country — we have a forest policy but not a grasslands policy. And our most threatened animals and birds are grassland-specific species.”
Cheetahs require vast tracts of grasslands, open woodlands and scrub-thorn forests with a huge prey base.
The Asiatic cheetah, which once roamed in different parts of India, are now found in Iran. Only around 7,100 cheetahs are left in the wild.
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