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Project Cheetah: Balancing Hope And Reality?

Did you know? In the 15th century, during the time of Mughal Emperor Akbar, had nearly 1,000 Cheetahs in captivity and had collected 9,000 cheetahs during his 50-year rule. But, unfortunately they were declared extinct in 1952, have you wondered why? In the past, when India was under colonial rule, Cheetahs were hunted not only for sports as a hobby but also because they were seen as a danger to livestock. In fact, people were even rewarded. Additionally, many forests were cut down for human settlements due to which big cats like Cheetahs eventually vanished due to habitat loss, hunting, and a decline in prey species in India.

Hence, in 1952, during India’s first wildlife board meeting after gaining independence, the government recognized the critical situation of Cheetahs in India and emphasized the urgent need to focus on protecting Cheetahs in central India. And so In September 2009, the Wildlife Trust of India restarted their efforts to reintroduce cheetahs to India. Finally on September 17, 2022, India launched the Cheetah Reintroduction Project with an aim to restore the Cheetah population in India.

Under the project a total of 20 radio collared Cheetahs are imported, 12 from South Africa and 8 from Namibia to Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh. But the question arises, Does India have a suitable habitat to bring back the lost cheetahs? How feasible is it to bring back the cheetahs? Various concerns have been raised on the reintroduction of Cheetahs. I believe it might be a bit challenging for big cats like Cheetahs to survive in India due to various factors, one of the major factors I would like to highlight is the problem of space, since Cheetahs are not much social animal and they do not like to live in a restricted space and the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh where the Cheetahs have been reintroduced is very small. Cheetahs require large space for their survival, a single Cheetah needs an area of 100 sq km approximately and the national park itself only is of 748 sq km due to which they haven’t really had the chance to behave like wild, free-roaming animals as they have spent most of the time in some sort of captivity.

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An area of approximately 5000 sq km is required for the Project Cheetah to be successful which is quite a daunting task for India because as agriculture has expanded in India, people have cleared land for farms which has reduced the grasslands that Cheetahs need to survive as Cheetahs are commonly found in African savannas and grasslands where the environment provides the open spaces and abundance of prey, mainly herbivorous animals like gazelles and impalas, that Cheetahs need for their survival. Moreover, due to the national park’s small size, Cheetahs were frequently found roaming outside its boundaries and they were brought back with the help of tranquilizers which are used to make them unconscious. Imagine how greatly it can affect their health too. I believe Cheetahs are not meant to be kept as pets as they are wild animals and are meant to roam freely, keeping them in a small area can seriously affect their chances of survival. Another significant issue to consider is the climate in India. According to an expert from South Africa named Vincent Van Der Merwe, two cheetahs have died because of a condition called septicemia which is caused due to wet and humid weather conditions.

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African Cheetahs are used to living in hot and dry climates, but India has a mix of wet and dry weather. So, this suggests that African Cheetahs might not be well-suited to the climate in India, which could pose a risk to their health and survival. Moreover, TTL in conversation with Divyansh Gahlaut, a final year law student believes that “According to Schedule I of the Wildlife Sanctuary Act of 1972, species listed there, including big cats like cheetahs, are meant to get complete protection. However, there have been reports that some cheetahs developed infections as a result of radio collars used for tracking. But, the ministry of environment denied these claims, stating that none of the cheetah deaths occurred due to unnatural causes.” As of now, 6 adult Cheetahs and 3 cubs have died in a very short span which definitely raises concern.

In the backdrop of these challenges and uncertainties, on 20 July, 2023 the Supreme Court recommended the relocation of the Cheetahs to Rajasthan. Furthermore, there are genetic differences as well. Historically, the Cheetahs that were found in India were Asiatic Cheetahs, which were well-adapted to the Indian environment. However, the decision has been made to bring in African Cheetahs instead. Why this decision? The key reason is that attempting to reintroduce Asiatic Cheetahs is not possible as there are only 30-40 Asiatic Cheetahs remaining and they are classified as endangered species exclusively found in Iran according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature(IUCN).

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As part of the project’s original plan, the goal is to introduce 50 cheetahs into various national parks over a span of 5 years. However, when we look at the current situation, it is quite concerning as 9 Cheetahs have already passed away in a very short period. This situation raises serious questions about whether it is wise to introduce more Cheetahs in India or not as for any animal to thrive and survive, certain fundamental factors are essential – access to food, water, sufficient space, and suitable shelter. It is evident that ensuring these conditions, particularly providing enough space, suitable shelter, and the right climatic conditions for African Cheetahs to survive, presents considerable hurdles for the project to achieve success.

To make the project more feasible, significant steps need to be taken to restore and expand suitable habitats for Cheetahs which may include reforestation, grassland restoration, creating safe areas where cheetahs can move around freely and ensuring minimum use of tranquilizers. Additionally, proper research should be done to help identify regions in India where the climate aligns better with the needs of African cheetahs. In conclusion, we can overcome the challenges by planning carefully, working together, and really caring about saving the cheetahs in India.

Source: National Tiger Conservation

Authority. : The Economic Times.

:https://www.iucn.nl/en/story/protecting-the-asiatic-cheetah-in-iran-meet-morteza-pourmirzai/

By: Shreya Kaushal.

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