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View from India: Cheetahs help ecological balance

Wildlife Week, celebrated in India from 2-8 October, was initiated in 1952 with the vision of preserving the conservation and lives of Indian animals.

Various state governments have lined up events to mark Wildlife Week. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department will conduct short film competitions for school-college students on themes like marine wildlife, mammal ecology and water birds, among others; the Indira Gandhi Zoological Park in Visakhapatnam will organise events for wildlife lovers; Delhi is preparing to get its first wildlife rescue centre, and many other ecology-wildlife-based activities and events have been lined up across the country.

Among all the wildlife activities that have already happened this year, what comes to mind is the announcement about cheetahs being reintroduced in the country.

Looking back, India was home to the Asiatic Cheetah until around the early 19th century – the country's last spotted cheetah died in 1947 in Chhattisgarh. A number of factors such as extensive hunting, diminishing habitat and fragmentation led to it being declared extinct in the country in 1952.

Cut to the present and a cheetah re-introduction project had already been prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India some years ago. In January 2021, the Supreme Court gave a nod of approval for introducing the African Cheetah in India; this was in response to a petition filed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

There is an evolutionary divide between African and Asiatic cheetahs that goes back thousands of years, and African cheetahs are supposed to be bigger and have more spots on the pelage than Asian ones.

Male and female cheetahs from South Africa will be flown into India later in the year. As per the media announcement made by the forest minister of Madhya Pradesh, the cheetahs will be flown into Gwalior in a phased-out manner. They will travel by road to the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary. Located in the Chambal region, Kuno is picturesque and is spread over 750 sq km and stretches to parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan. It scored over other chosen locations because the ground was already prepared (quite literally) for the relocation of Asiatic lions from Gujarat.

However, upon translocation, caution needs to be exercised with these long-legged, swift-moving cats. The fact that these African spotted animals are being introduced in India could be a cause of concern. They are entering an unknown habitat and familiarising them with their new home, making them adaptable, and preventing feline infection, may be a challenge. With government support, wildlife conservationists-scientists, disease ecologists and veterinarians could monitor these cats to keep zoonotic diseases at bay.

The country will again be home to cheetahs. As a beginning, it’s probably good that they are being sent to a protected area.

Yet, all said and done, cheetahs could be left to roam freely in their natural habitat. They usually inhabit areas with less vegetation so that they can hunt and swiftly catch their prey – though they can be found in deserts and plains, grasslands seem to be their main preference; these muscular cats almost merge with the surroundings.

As predators, cheetahs have a role to play in the ecological balance. Being apex predators, cheetahs are on top of the food chain and so, if they are removed from the food chain, it may impact the biodiversity in a negative way. Over-grazing soil erosion can also be a spinoff. What needs to be worked out is predator-prey ratio, along with habitat restoration. The cheetah-farmer conflict is a known fact: typically, cheetahs attack livestock and end up getting killed by farmers. A protected open habitat, such as a conservation policy for grasslands, may help. 

Cheetahs, the world’s fastest land animals, can race across grasslands at speeds touching 70mph (112km/h) to capture prey. These large, slender, spotted cats are found in Africa and Iran.

Madhya Pradesh already has a track record of big-cat reintroduction following the tiger reintroduction programme in the Panna Tiger Reserve in 2009, which made global news. The country’s tiger count has since made it into the Guinness World Records.

Though seven decades had passed since their extinction, there’s a felt need for cheetahs in India and it will soon join the big-cat tribe comprising tigers, leopards and snow leopards. With the introduction of African cheetahs, hopefully the Kuno landscape will become a national landmark and a matter of pride for India. Cheetahs, the sprinters of the cat world, are born to run and one hopes the animal races ahead as conservation efforts help the community grow.

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