Cheetahs are coming back to India: The inside story of the homecoming

As the cheetah returns to India after seven decades, Congress leader and former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh talks about its historical connect with India, the positive impact its reintroduction could have on lost grasslands here, and the initiatives over the years that led to the translocation project

African Cheetah
The cheetah is perhaps the only mammal to derive its name from Sanskrit — the origin being chitraka, meaning spotted | Representative Photo: iStock

The government is set to reintroduce the cheetah to Indian forests in August, seven decades after the animal went extinct in the country. The Centre has signed MoUs with South Africa and Namibia for the translocation of 20 cheetahs to the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. While four male and as many female African cheetahs will be brought from Namibia, another 12 will be imported from South Africa. These will be soft released in a compartmentalised enclosure at Kuno, to establish the cheetah into its ‘historical range’. The author recounts the process and explains it significance:

It was two months after I had become Minister of Environment and Forests, in end-May 2009, that I met with two of India’s most eminent naturalists — Divyabhanusinh and MK Ranjitsinh — who happen to be cousins as well. The former presented me with his magnificent book on the Gir lions as well as with his deeply researched and wonderfully written classic, The End of a Trail: The Cheetah in India, first published in 1995.

I must say that apart from its fantastic speed, which I have seen only on films and observing in a couple of zoos, I had not been much enamoured of the cheetah as compared to the tiger, leopard or even the lion.

But reading Divyabhanusinh’s work made me understand and appreciate three things: first, it is an integral part of Indian history going back to ancient times; second, it is the only mammal to have been hunted to complete extinction in India even though it has never been a maneater; and third, it is perhaps the only mammal to derive its name from Sanskrit — the origin being chitraka, meaning spotted. 

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It was he, I should admit, who made up my mind for me — that we must find a way of bringing back the cheetah into our wild.

Also read: India set to welcome cheetahs after 70 years; national park in MP chosen as habitat

Initial talks

On his advice and that of Ranjitsinh and Dr YV Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India, I opened a dialogue with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The idea was to get IUCN to investigate in detail the scientific and other aspects of reintroduction of the cheetah into India. 

Simultaneously, I spoke with officials of the Iranian government to see whether we could get an initial group of cheetahs from that country. Pretty soon though it became obvious that this was a deadend since the cheetah is very highly endangered in Iran. That left South Africa and Namibia as other possible sources.

On April 25, 2010, I visited the Cheetah Outreach Centre near Cape Town in South Africa and spent some time there. This opened a line for our experts to take forward. I recall an influential ‘tiger lobby’ was not too happy with all these initiatives and I argued with some of them that while tiger conservation was, in essence, protection of rich forests, cheetah reintroduction would also mean revitalising our lost grasslands.

Former Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh at the Cheetah Outreach Centre near Cape Town to discuss cheetah translocation from South Africa to India | Wikimedia Commons

It was an argument that would continue for well over a decade long after I ceased to be the minister concerned. It bears recall that this ‘tiger lobby’ was also against the translocation of tigers to Panna and Sariska that later proved to be remarkable success stories.

Why Kuno National Park?

It was also during our conversation on the revival of the Panna Tiger Reserve in April 2011 that Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan first expressed a keen interest in developing Kuno National Park in that state as a cheetah habitat.

Kuno was actually being created as a second home for the Asiatic lion in India on very sound ecological considerations, but that has never materialised — a Supreme Court verdict notwithstanding – because of the obduracy of one man who shall remain nameless but whose identity is very well known. I do hope that someday before it is too late a second home for the Asiatic lion becomes a reality.

Action at the speed of — the cheetah

It is good that the 2010 cheetah initiative was not aborted, but has received fresh momentum over the past decade. Legal battles were fought and won. Extensive scientific studies were completed. Diplomatic channels with Namibia were activated and an agreement finalised. And, very soon, an agreement with South Africa was concluded. While Kuno will soon see the first group of eight cheetahs from Namibia, there are some excellent locations in Rajasthan and Gujarat as well that could be developed as cheetah habitats.

India will, however, not be the first country where cheetahs are being reintroduced. Five years ago, seven cheetahs found a new home in the Liwonde National Park in Malawi. Within a very short period of time four species of critically endangered vultures made their presence felt there. Liwonde has thereafter seen lions as well. This has lessons for Kuno.

Also read: The road to return of the Cheetah is strewn with landmines

Coincidentally, the cheetah is staging a comeback in the wild  in India as we mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, a law drafted by Ranjitsinh with the close personal involvement of Indira Gandhi. Ranjitsinh himself had tried to get a cheetah initiative going with Iran long before I came on the scene but that could not materialise. 

The Act, now undergoing some amendments in Parliament after examination by the Standing Committee concerned, has been responsible for India emerging as a world leader in conservation, starting with Project Lion in January 1972 followed by Project Tiger in April 1973 and numerous other species recovery programmes.

(The writer is a Member of Parliament and former Union Minister)

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