Once the first lot of African cheetahs get settled in their new turf in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno region and the media circus dies down, a few crucial questions will emerge. Namely, and this would only be known in hindsight, the eventual success of the translocation and the kind of ecological changes the cheetahs trigger in the Indian landscape
Cheetah, that lithe big cat which disappeared from India some 70 years ago, is making a comeback after several false starts. Eight cheetahs, brought from Namibia, are being placed in a specially built enclosure in the Kuno area of Madhya Pradesh. The momentous event, because that’s what it is, was flagged off by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of his birthday.
So far, so good. But the real story would unfold after that. The move itself is breathtaking in its scope and significance. Many of us were not even born when the Maharaja of Korea district of Chattisgarh dispatched bullets after the last remaining three cheetahs in India. That was the end of the road for the world’s fastest animal.
What has changed in 70 years?
For all practical purposes, the cheetah in the present scenario is an alien species in India. To further complicate the situation, a lot has changed in the last 70 years. Our forest cover has shrunk considerably. Large grasslands, the favourite hunting ground of cheetahs in Africa, have more or less disappeared. Banni grassland of Gujarat, once touted as the largest in Asia, is now a shadow of its former self.
So it may appear that the dice is loaded against cheetahs. But this may not be true. The factors which led to cheetahs’ decimation in India were almost the same which caused tiger population to shrink to a perilous 1,411 two decades ago.
Namely, the loss of habitat, man-animal conflict and indiscriminate poaching. But thanks to sustained efforts by the Central and state Governments, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and other like-minded bodies and individuals, the tiger made a remarkable comeback.
Provided the same care is given to cheetah’s rehabilitation, similar results can be achieved. Of course, at this point, it’s all in the realm of speculation.
Yellowstone National Park experiment
Another big question is how far the cheetah would alter the ecological balance of Indian forests, if at all it manages to gain a firm foothold. It will not be out of place to cite the example of the grey wolf’s relocation in the Yellowstone National Park in the United States in 1995. This apex predator had disappeared from the park in 1926.
The wolves’ relocation to Yellowstone brought about completely unexpected results. Their numbers multiplied, of course: from the first lot of 40 or so, they now stand tall at over 500. Impressive.
But what startled the wildlife experts was that the wolf’s reintroduction at Yellowstone triggered an unexpected increase in the number of many prey species. Strange indeed are the ways of Nature, often beyond the comprehension of wildlife experts.
One hopes the cheetah’s arrival in India would produce similar results. After all, in the long march of time, what’s a 70-year disappearance of a species from the place where it had flourished for many centuries? A few minutes, at the most.
One only hopes the translocated cheetahs do not meet the fate of one-horned rhinos which were brought to Dudhwa Tiger Reserve 40 years ago. The idea was noble indeed, to make the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh home to the rhinos, where they used to roam freely a century ago. But the plan did not take off as materialized and today, the rhinos of Dudhwa are enclosed in one area of Dudhwa.
It will indeed be a sad day if the world’s fastest sprinter ends up its life in an enclosure.
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