Creating a sustainable home for the cheetahs
To conserve this iconic grassland species, India must expand the habitat and curate best practices to ensure growth. This is the start of a journey that needs great commitment
Amid fanfare and apprehension, India has embarked upon a challenging journey involving the most iconic species it has seen since the launch of Project Tiger in 1973. In many respects, this project is more complicated than the tiger recovery programme, as Acinonyx jubatus, the cheetah, has been extinct in the wild in India for 70 years. The first eight individuals that landed on September 17 are of African origin, not the Asian subspecies, of which only 15 survive in Iran.
India’s tiger population plummeted due to overhunting, but tiger-worthy habitats were intact. Therefore, the plan to rebuild the tiger population focused on protecting those habitats and banning the hunting of tigers and their prey. In the case of the cheetah, not only were they declared extinct from India in 1952, but their ideal habitat — rolling grasslands interspersed with dry deciduous (open) forests — has been wiped out due to overexploitation by people and the apathy of governments. The prime prey of the cheetah, the blackbuck and chinkara (Indian gazelle), have either disappeared from most of their historic ranges or are present in extremely low densities.
Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park (748 sq km) and its buffer zone (487 sq km) were chosen as the first cheetah introduction site after experts from Africa, who are advising the government, found that it is a large, dry, deciduous, protected area with little anthropogenic pressure. Based on a detailed study on Kuno’s prey population, the Wildlife Institute of India found a density of 51 animals per sq km of prospective prey to be enough to sustain a cheetah population.
Cheetahs are vulnerable to competition from large carnivores. In Africa, where they share their habitat with lions, spotted hyenas, and leopards, up to 90% of cheetah cubs die due to predation before they turn one. While Kuno does not have lions and only occasionally receives a dispersing tiger from Ranthambhore, which is 50 km away, there is a healthy population of leopards. They occur at a density of 9 per sq km, and may pose a threat to cheetahs, especially cubs. Hence, a long-term study to understand the spatial and temporal overlap between leopards and cheetahs must begin by radio-collaring male and female leopards. The findings will provide insights into leopard-cheetah interaction, which will help the park management take corrective action. In a translocation experiment of a locally extinct carnivore, it is impossible to allow nature to take its course. The cheetah will need help from park managers for 20-25 years before it can start living independently.
India has a good track record of conserving forests. However, it has fared badly in safeguarding grasslands, marshlands, deserts, and coastlines, leading to the depletion of many habitat-specific species. Populations of several grassland specialists — the great Indian bustard, caracal, lesser florican, chinkara, blackbuck, wolf — have been declining over the past 50 years. So, people who oppose the cheetah introduction programme argue that instead of investing huge sums of money in an exotic species, the government should focus on recovering these endangered species. However, the fact that these species have fared poorly in a nation that has successfully protected and resurrected the tiger, Asiatic lion, greater Indian one-horned rhinoceros and swamp deer (barasingha), highlights the disinterest of successive governments in protecting them.
For the first time in independent India’s history, the government has shown interest in conserving an iconic grassland species. This is an opportunity to restore a large expanse of grasslands and associated wildlife. In Africa, even the best cheetah habitats support a low-density population of one individual per 100 sq km and hence to have 125 wild-ranging cheetahs, India will need to set aside at least 12,500 sq km of cheetah-worthy habitat. For the cheetah to stabilise in India, at least four to five grassland habitats of about 2,000 sq km each will have to be established. This can take 15-20 years of intensive effort. Some of the steps will include increasing the spread of native grasses and associated vegetation; removal of weeds and exotic non-palatable plants; augmenting prey species such as blackbuck, chinkara, nilgai and wild pig; mitigating linear infrastructures that crisscross the landscape to allow safe movement of wildlife; and above all, starting a dialogue with local communities to co-curate cheetah-friendly practices such as stall-feeding of livestock to reduce the grazing pressure on wildernesses, management of stray dogs, constituting eco-development committees to reduce human-wildlife conflict and providing alternative livelihoods to the marginalised to reduce their dependence on the natural ecosystem, allowing habitat revival. If the government can pull this off, India will give a fighting chance at survival to many of its endangered grassland fauna.
Keeping in mind the fragility of the species and the lowly status awarded to grasslands and open forests in India, we may need patience and out-of-the-box strategies before the cheetah experiment achieves its goal of having about 125 adults born in India and spread across large-sized cheetah-worthy habitats.
This may take up to 25 years and will require constant cheetah and prey augmentation; stringent management of stray dogs; intensive monitoring of disease transfer rates between wildlife and domestic/farm animals; tourism that puts the interest of local communities at the centre; moving away from a protected area or fortress-based conservation paradigm towards one that advocates a win-win for both local communities and wildlife; and most importantly, putting in place an integrated landscape-planning mechanism that involves a seamless, transparent consultation between different ministries. We must also have the courage to pull out of the cheetah experiment if we realise that efforts are not bearing fruit.
Finally, we must remember that India is a unique country. Nowhere else do we see a culture so intricately woven with nature. Therefore, while we can continue to consult international scientists regarding the ecology of the cheetah, we must also tap into our home-grown conservation strategies that utilise our inherent strengths.
Anish Andheria is president, Wildlife Conservation Trust
The views expressed are personal