Examine the cheetah project with an open mind: The Kuno experiment
More than 117 years after the project to rehabilitate lions from Africa failed, the government has readied a five square kilometre enclosure for cheetahs to be brought from Namibia by end of this year.
The dry deciduous forest landscape of Kuno Palpur National Park is looking at re-writing history. More than 117 years after the project to rehabilitate lions from Africa failed, the government has readied a five square kilometre enclosure for cheetahs to be brought from Namibia by end of this year. And the experiment has the world watching as it would be India’s first relocation of cats from another continent since Independence.
In 1905, 10 lions were brought from Africa for repopulating the lion population in Kuno grasslands, which had lions till 1872, when the last one was shot dead near Guna. Of the 10 lions, three died by the time they reached Bombay harbour. The remaining seven were released in the forests of Shivpuri, near Kuno, and all of them were killed by local villagers when the lions started killing their cattle. The project failed despite having the backing of Lord Curzon, the then viceroy of the British Empire in India.
In 2010, India embarked upon a new journey for the re-introduction of the cheetah into the wild. The plan was to bring cheetahs from Africa and release them in wild to repopulate the cheetah population in the country. Kuno was selected as the habitat where the cheetahs could be relocated. However, the project got stuck as some wildlife activists moved the Supreme Court (SC) against the project saying it was not feasible. The SC struck down the proposal agreeing with the critics that survival of cheetahs in changed ecological demography was difficult.
However, in 2018 the Madhya Pradesh government revived the project asking the SC to consider the project afresh. The court agreed and, in 2020, appointed an expert committee headed by retired Indian Forest Service officer, MK Ranjit Sinh, to examine the wildlife areas suitable for cheetah. The committee in January 2021, selected Kuno National Park as the first destination for the Cheetah Translocation project. The apex court gave its go-ahead.
The history of the cheetah in India
Ravi Chellam, a biodiversity expert, who had worked extensively on big cats, said that historically, Asiatic cheetahs had a wide range of distribution in India. “There are authentic reports of their occurrence from as far north as Punjab to Tirunelveli district in southern Tamil Nadu, from Gujarat and Rajasthan in the west to Bengal in the east. Most of the records are from a belt extending from Gujarat passing through Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha. There is also a cluster of reports from southern Maharashtra extending to parts of Karnataka, Telangana, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The distribution range of the cheetah was wide and spread all over the subcontinent,” he wrote in The Hindu newspaper.
Chellam said that the habitat of cheetah was also diverse, favouring the more open habitats; scrub forest, dry grasslands, savannas and other arid and semi-arid open habitats. “Some of the last reports of cheetahs in India prior to their local extinction are from edge habitats of sal forests in east central India, not necessarily their preferred habitat,” he wrote. In Iran, he said, cheetahs are found in hilly terrain, foothills and rocky valleys within a desert ecosystem.
India lost many cheetahs after the British government announced a bounty for cheetahs in 1871, which resulted in their rapid extinction from many habitats across India. In 1948, the last three cheetahs were hunted by the king of Surguja, in present-day Chhattisgarh. Four years down the line, the government declared that the cheetah is extinct in India. In 1974, India made a futile effort to bring cheetahs from Iran.
Kuno was preferred over the Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in MP because it was large enough for cheetahs to roam around and hunt freely, away from any human interference. Sinh, who chairs the SC’s expert panel for cheetah translocation said "The work done to get lions from Gir by way of relocating 24 villages from inside the habitat also worked in favour of Kuno.” The translocation of lions did not eventually happen with the Gujarat government saying they could not share their "states pride."
In the past 10 months, the Madhya Pradesh forest department and experts from the Dehradun based Wildlife Institute have worked to make changes in the dry deciduous forest of Kuno in Sheopur district. One of the first concerns was the invasive grass species and thorny bushes, both detrimental to the cheetah's ability to make a kill.
Beyond that, a highly secured semi-captive cage spread over five sq km is close to being ready, a pipeline to get water from the Kuno river 12 km away from the enclosure has been laid, watch towers have been erected and the landscape management is in the final stages. The enclosure is covered with mesh wires and has solar fencing to prevent unwarranted animals to enter. The enclosure has been divided into five compartments for the initial release of cheetahs, where they would be monitored through CCTV cameras around the clock. Watch towers have also been constructed to keep a manual watch on them. “All cheetahs would be geo-tagged to study how they are adopting to the new habitat. A team of wildlife experts from India and abroad will monitor cheetahs,” Verma said. The entire re-conservation process will cost about R10 crore, and the cheetahs are expected by end of 2022.
The enclosure having grassland and hilly terrain will test the ability of cheetah to survive in a climate where the temperatures in summer touch close to 45 degrees Celsius and in winter it can come down to 3-4 degrees Celsius. An experiment to see whether African cheetahs can survive in an Asian landscape is unique as it would test the adaptability of the fastest animal on the planet in a new habitat. So far, tiger relocation within the same state — Ranthambore to Sariska, both in Rajasthan and Kanha to Panna tiger reserve, both in Madhya Pradesh — have been successful in India. However, the only inter-state relocation of tigers from Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh to Satkosia wildlife sanctuary in Odisha has failed, primarily because of poor prey population management in Satkosia.
KC Verma, director of Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary, said the park has a good population of leopards and spotted deer. Spotted deer could be prey for both leopards and cheetahs. He ruled out the possibility of conflict between leopard and cheetah saying the two can co-exist in the same habitat as the former is a shy animal and not as aggressive as the cheetah. “There is enough prey population for both the cats,” he said. However, international cat experts have said that several cheetah deaths were reported in Africa from habitats having a good leopard population. Kuno has about 90 leopards spread in an area of 748 square kilometres.
But, some wildlife experts say a bigger conflict can emerge as Kuno has been home for tigers who migrate from Ranthambore due to population pressure there. Ranthambore has 75 tigers, which is more than the habitat — having a core area of 1,300 square kilometres — can hold. TC Verma, director of Ranthambore tiger reserve, said there are plans to relocate some tigers from Ranthambore to Kala Devi and Mukundra Hills wildlife sanctuaries, which the Rajasthan government is developing to accommodate excess tigers from Ranthambore. This may stop the migration of tigers from Ranthambore to Kuno for time being, but not in future. In 2015, at-least four tigers from Ranthambore had migrated to Kuno, TM Verma admitted, while refusing to comment on the cheetah project.
His counterpart in Kuno, KC Verma, did not see any threat from Ranthambore tigers for the project saying that no tiger has migrated since 2016 to Kuno and even if they come, tigers and cheetahs can live together. “Historically, all four big cats (lion, tiger, leopard and cheetah) were found in Kuno, like some other wildlife habitats in the country,” he said, adding that tigers have primarily confined themselves to the outskirts of Kuno, which is close to Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan, and not entered the core where cheetahs would be kept.
The Madhya Pradesh forest department has prepared 500 hectares as an enclosure, where cheetahs from Namibia will be released. According to the government, about a month ago, a team of government officials visited Namibia to inspect the cheetahs that would be sent to India, review the arrangements and reach an agreement for the transfer of the cats. Hindustan Times has reported that Namibia wants India’s support for lifting the CITES ban on the commercial trade of wildlife products, including ivory. The cheetahs are to be provided by the Cheetah Conservation Fund, an NGO, and not the Namibian government.
Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of the Madhya Pradesh forest department, there are critics of the project who say that by bringing cheetah to Kuno the state government has abandoned the longtime lion relocation project. They also say that releasing cheetah into the wild from enclosure would be difficult as a cheetah would become habitual of easy availability of prey. The forest department plans to trap prey and release them in the enclosure. “In fact, this project is of bringing cheetah from wildlife and keeping him in a zoo,” said a wildlife expert working with Delhi University. Wildlife ecologists also say not enough scientific research has been done to select Kuno as the site for translocation of the cheetah.
But for many, the cheetah relocation project is important as it would help conservationists to understand the behaviour of cheetahs in a new habitat and also rekindle the hope of cheetah returning to India’s forest also 70 years after it was hunted to extinction from the country. The project may fail. But failure cannot be a reason for not conducting an important ecological experiment.
(The writer had recently travelled to Kuno on personal visit)