Cheetah in India

View from India: Cheetah tourism, anyone?

Image credit: Lenstravelier | Unsplash

Kuno-Palpur National Park (KPNP) in Madhya Pradesh is gearing up for cheetah tourism. This would be the first time in over 75 years that cheetahs could be spotted in the wild.

Long and slender bodied, cheetahs are the world’s fastest animal. The swift-moving spotted cat had occupied parts of Central India. They were officially declared extinct in 1952 due to extensive hunting as well as ecological changes. The present generation may not have seen cheetahs. Now this could be slated to change. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh (MP) has issued an official statement that MP may start cheetah tourism in February.

The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal, capable of speeds touching 70 miles (112km) an hour. It’s a sight to behold and they are being introduced in India through Project Cheetah. As indicated by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) this is the world’s first inter-continental large wild carnivore translocation project.

In October 2021, we reported that cheetahs will be reintroduced in the country. In a first-of-its-kind endeavour, the cheetahs were trans-located from Namibia in South Africa to MP’s Kuno National Park in September 2022. The pandemic delayed the project. The African cheetahs in all - five females and three males - were released into a quarantine enclosure. The team representing the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) and Project Cheetah closely monitored the cheetahs before gradually releasing them into bigger enclosures. Being apex predators, the cheetahs made news as they began to hunt before they were released in the wild.

Those cheetahs that inhabited India till the 19th century were Asiatic ones and as of now, they are a small community found around Iran and Pakistan. Asiatic cheetahs are smaller and have a thicker coat than the African ones. What we now have are the African ones. Regardless of their origin, their very presence could probably add to the ecology of the place. For instance, these big cats could play a role in restoring the open forest and grasslands, which can be an exercise in biodiversity conservation.

Besides enhancing environmental quotient, cheetahs could increase tourist footfall in MP. Cheetah tourism could well be a sustainable activity as well as an income-generating one. MP is home to the Saharia tribe. The National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) and the Ecotourism Board has selected Saharia tribal families to use their homes as homestays. Wherever required, the homes may also be repaired, though not structurally undergoing any change. The inmates are being trained on aspects like hygiene and etiquette, besides fine-tuning their culinary skills to suit international tastebuds. All this is projected to generate income for the members of the tribe. It also doubles up as a means of bringing the tribe to the forefront and showcasing their culture.

Kuno comprises zones such as Ahera and Peel-Bawdi. Tiktoli, the third zone, is home to cheetahs. Cheetahs in their natural habitat can be seen through safaris, which is likely to happen in the morning and evening. Local people are being trained to speak in English as they will be the tour guides. Visitors heading for a slice of cheetah tourism can book online for Kuno.

The translocation is hoped will lead to the conservation of cheetahs. Incidentally, December 4 is celebrated as International Cheetah Day. As background, Khayam was a cheetah born on December 4 1976. Dr Laurie Marker, founder and executive director, CCF, raised Khayam from a new-born cub at Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon. Khayam was trained for the first research project in re-wilding. It became an inspiration for Dr Marker to travel to Namibia to see if the cheetah can hunt in the wild. Dr Marker then began CCF in Namibia as a research, education and conservation centre for saving cheetahs in the wild. Khayam’s birthday has been chosen as International Cheetah Day to promote cheetah conservation in her memory.

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