Policies and People | Cheetahs in Kuno: Who gains, who loses

  • The cheetah introduction plan has sparked a controversy. While eventually, everything may fall in place, there is no harm in answering the project-related questions from scientists and conservationists
Unveiling the cheetah plan, Union minister for environment, forest and climate change, Bhupender Yadav said that “Project Cheetah aims to bring back independent India’s only extinct large mammal – the cheetah. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Unveiling the cheetah plan, Union minister for environment, forest and climate change, Bhupender Yadav said that “Project Cheetah aims to bring back independent India’s only extinct large mammal – the cheetah. (Shutterstock)
Updated on Jun 24, 2022 03:53 PM IST
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Earlier this week, while reading an article on the cheetah introduction controversy, I scoured the internet for photographs of the Kuno-Palpur National Park (KNP) in Madhya Pradesh’s Sheopur district. Among the 10 surveyed sites in five central Indian states, KNP has been rated high on the priority list for being the home of the cheetah because of its suitable habitat and adequate prey base, Government of India’s Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India, released in January, said.

I had been to Sheopur in 1999-2000, and I remember the place as a small, nondescript town in a plateau region on a small tributary of the Chambal River. KNP was then only a wildlife sanctuary, and I don’t remember anyone even remotely suggesting that I visit it.

It was a big miss. It is a majestic park, as I recently found out.

An elegant and evocative documentary — The Forgotten Pride by Nishant Kapoor and Farhan Khan — captures KNP in all its splendour and majesty. KNP is indeed a rare jungle; an oasis in an otherwise rocky desolate and vast Vindhyan landscape. The river Kuno meanders through the lush forests and past ancient forts, dominated by the “Kardhai”, “Khair” and “Salai” trees. The list of faunal species is also impressive: Spotted deer, sambar, barking deer, leopard, wild dogs, striped hyaena, Indian wolf and jungle cats, to name a few. It is also a birders haven.

Awaiting the King

But it is a jungle without a king.

KNP came into prominence in the 1990s when a plan was chalked out to make it the home of Asiatic lions. As per the plan, lions would be relocated from Gujarat’s Gir sanctuary, currently the only home of the Asiatic lions in India.

To make the jungle ready for the lions, the Madhya Pradesh government relocated 23 villages comprising 1,547 families, mostly from the dirt-poor Sahariya tribes, from KNP, between 1996 and 2001. As the poor tribals moved out to make way for animals, making the space inviolate, the jungle regenerated at a feverish pace, and a prey base for the lions was built up.

But in 2009-2010, the lion plan gave way to the cheetah plan, and since then a lot of water has flown down the Kuno.

Unveiling the cheetah plan, Union minister for environment, forest and climate change, Bhupender Yadav said that “Project Cheetah aims to bring back independent India’s only extinct large mammal – the cheetah. As part of the project, 50 cheetahs will be introduced in various National Parks over five years.” India will source cheetahs, which went extinct in India in 1952, from Southern Africa.

More than jungle lore

The cheetah plan has sparked a major controversy.

Last week, the Vidhi Legal Centre for Legal Policy and Rainmatter Foundation organised a talk on the cheetah plan with noted wildlife conservationist Maharaj Kumar Ranjitsinh, a key force behind the scheme, as the guest.

Speaking to Debadityo Sinha, senior resident fellow, Vidhi Legal Centre for Legal Policy, Ranjitsinh started the discussion on an emotional note: “He who goes away becomes a little dearer than the one you have”.

When asked why it is important to get cheetahs from Africa, and not focus on the other big cats India has, he said: “…it is not just the cheetah but what goes with it. And that is the habitat, you can have the habitat without a wild animal but you cannot have the wild animal without the habitat. The habitat, in this case, is the grassland-forest mosaic. Conservation, by any means, is the utmost priority.

On a question on man-animal conflict (cheetahs are low-density animals), Ranjitsinh said that unlike the lions and the tigers, there is no record of a cheetah ever killing a human being.

“In case there is a food security concern, the cheetah is likely to attack the domestic sheep and goats that humans raise. There will be some amount of conflict but if maintained properly for cheetahs to develop a viable population, the Kuno National Park area will be transformed,” he argued.

The counter-argument

However, not all are buying these arguments.

Faiyaz Ahmad Khudsar, a wildlife biologist who worked for several decades in KNP, starting in the 1990s as a young researcher, says the national park is not ready ecologically for the African cheetah.

KNP was identified as the preferred location as it has large grasslands, suited to the cheetah’s need to build up speed without worrying about obstacles. These grasslands were formed, in large part, through the removal of villages and rewilding of agricultural land to make way for the relocation of the Asiatic lion, writes Simon Evans, Principal Lecturer in Ecotourism, Anglia Ruskin University, in The Conversation.

“There is a general perception that most of the grasslands, especially in central India, are ‘cultural’, which means official intervention was required to relocate people from these areas, following which they became grasslands with heavy inputs. But when you look at Kuno, the farmlands, over time, have been taken over by plants that are woodland species such as Ziziphus nummularia or Jhar Beri, Acacia leucophloea or Reonj and Dichrostachys cinerea or Birbira. These farms are now woodlands,” he told me during a phone interview. This kind of habitat is not suitable for cheetahs from Africa, who stay in the Savannahs,” Khudsar told me during a telephone interview on Wednesday.

As for food, Khudsar explains, that if one looks at 20th-century documents, Indian cheetahs largely depended on blackbucks and chinkaras, sometimes on chital and rarely on nilgai. Today, blackbucks and chinkaras are not present. “This means the prey base is very weak. And it is not that people have killed these animals. They have gone out due to ecological succession,” he adds.

Khudsar also thinks, if there is a competition with the tiger/leopard, cheetahs will lose, and could be driven out of parks.

“Cheetahs in KNP will never be free-ranging animals; they will end up in the enclosure built for them. It’s a pity”.

The views expressed are personal

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    KumKum Dasgupta is with the opinion section of Hindustan Times. She writes on education, environment, gender, urbanisation and civil society. .

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