Introduce Cheetahs, but where will the big cats roam
New Delhi, Feb 12: Supreme Court's go-ahead to the central government's ambitious plan to introduce African cheetahs has renewed enthusiasm among wildlife lovers.
The graceful animal that was declared extinct in the country in 1952, has inspired campaigns for a fresh introduction mainly by the nationalistic sense of loss.
The idea is not new. In 1970s, the government made an attempt to import cheetahs from Iran, which has the only surviving population of the Asiatic cheetah. But Iran declied the offer citing precariously low population.
During the UPA-II regime, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh pushed the project to repopulate the only large mammal to have gone extinct in India.
In May 2012, the court stayed the cheetah plan, and in April 2013, it ordered translocation of lions from Gujarat while quashing the plan for introducing African cheetahs to Kuno-Palpur.
The cheetah plan was revived in 2017 when the government sought permission from the Supreme Court to explore possibilities "in conformity with the applicable law to reintroduce cheetahs from Africa to suitable sites" other than Kuno-Palpur.
With Supreme Courts January order, there are some key questions that needs to be answered before we lay out the red carpet.
Supreme Courts 2013 order
In its 2013 order restraining the Environment Ministry from importing African cheetahs into Kuno, Madhya Pradesh,the supreme court had observed that there are many seriously threatened Indian species such as the lion, the Great Indian Bustard, Bengal florican, the dugong, and Manipur brow-antlered deer which deserve immediate conservation action.
Before making any attempt at expensive rewilding India's threatened natural spaces with cheetahs, which require large grassland ranges, one should consider the viability of such a programme.
It is important to understand that the imported Cheetah's have to be sourced from Namibia - along with big cats such as lions, tigers and leopards. It is also essential to create a viable habitat for the cheetah as it thrives in these areas.
There is also a huge expenditure involved in stabilising a foreign species when conservation programmes for many endangered species in India continue to be underfunded.
The reintroduction of Cheetah's will be an added pressure that a small group of introduced predators will impose on an ecosystem, crucially on the prey base that currently sustains tigers and leopards.
Supreme Court allows introduction of African Cheetahs in India
Environmentalists also question if India has adequate habitat for cheetahs, one of the widest ranging of big cats, and known to travel across areas in excess of 1,000 sq km every year.
Reportedly, India has lost about 90 to 95 per cent of its grasslands, 31 per cent in just a decade between 2005-15 - so where will the cheetah roam, if it were ever returned to the wild?