By January next, Bikaner in Rajasthan may get four African cheetahs from Namibia, the country with maximum big cats in the world, 58 years after India lost its last Asiatic cheetah.
But, revival of cheetah population in the dry grasslands of Rajasthan, where tigers went missing from Sariska in 2004, has raised questions over the possibility of their captive breeding. “It’s a difficult task but not impossible,” said Dr Raghu Chandawat, a wildlife expert, who has worked on tiger relocation and conservation for years.
“Captive breeding of cheetahs is not as easy as it is for tigers, lions or leopards (other members of the big cat family)”.
But, M.K. Ranjitsinh, who was with the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department when India’s last cheetah was hunted down, is confident that the population of the world’s fastest animal can be revived in India.
He heads a Noida-based NGO, Wildlife Trust of India, which has got in-principle approval of the environment ministry for import of cheetahs, at least four, in the first go. “We have done a preliminary survey and found that cheetahs can be imported, bred in captivity and rehabilitated in wild,” he said.
The NGO proposal has got the support of the global wildlife watchdog, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which has listed cheetah as endangered species.
The proposal was submitted to the ministry a fortnight ago. “The final yes would be made after a team of Indian and foreign experts approves the rehabilitation plan in September,” said a senior official, who didn’t wish to be named as he’s not authorised to speak to the media.
Relocating them to India from Africa is not a problem, as they adapt very fast, Ranjitsinh and Chandawat said. Cheetahs have survived from Siberia to Africa.
But, their rehabilitation into wild is an issue. They like to live in vast tracks of land unlike tigers, whose area is not more than eight to 10 kms. “They need large grasslands up to 700 kms to survive,” Chandawat said.
If their enclosure is small, there is a danger of cheetahs killing each other. “Upgradation of conservation of the wild areas to meet requirements of the cheetahs would need a lot of planning,” said Ranjitsinh.
In September meeting, the scientific community will thrash-out all such issues. “We want to generate a lot of scientific thought before relocating the animals,” said Ashok Kumar, vice-chairman of WTI.
Another danger of captive breeding is DNA degeneration, a probable cause for decline of Asiatic cheetahs and poor reproduction because cheetahs have 90 per cent lower sperm count than tigers, say experts.