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Why the arrival of African cheetahs to India is worrisome
The project is a monument to personal ambition, politics, and bad science.
Good morning! A big hello to readers who signed up this week. Welcome to The Intersection, The Signal's weekend edition. This weekend we talk about how introducing the cheetah in India is a disaster waiting to happen. Also in today’s edition: we have curated the best weekend reads for you.
It’s been a week since the video spread like wildfire, but you won’t find it on Twitter, TikTok, or YouTube. It features three cheetahs feeding on a Thomson’s gazelle at the Barafu Gorge in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. Watching them is a man with a snowy beard. He pans the camera away from the world’s fastest land animals and to himself, addressing whoever is watching:
"Every government officer in India… needs to come here for training. Including retired bureaucrats who pass fanciful ideas of reintroducing cheetahs.
India doesn't have the prey, doesn’t have the habitat. Cheetahs will end up being killed by feral dogs. We're in a mess with other forms of wildlife, but we’re into multimillion-dollar fashions of importing African cheetahs in areas where it's not viable. They're not going to survive.”
The video went viral not because of what was said, but because of who said it. The narrator is India’s most famous wildlife conservationist and tiger expert, Valmik Thapar. You may have seen his nature documentaries for the BBC, Discovery, National Geographic, and Animal Planet. The most notable was BBC’s Land Of The Tiger (1997).
India’s decades-old fever dream of having cheetahs in its midst will finally be realised in August. A batch of 5-6 individuals will be brought in from South Africa to Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh (MP). Reams of newsprint have been dedicated to this issue because most wildlife experts oppose the move; so much so that the matter reached the Supreme Court twice. In the end, science lost.
When someone like Thapar speaks out, people listen. And so, his video travelled in conservationist circles on Facebook and Whatsapp.
“Wildlife scientists have been messaging me saying ‘thank you’ for speaking up,” Thapar tells The Intersection. “We don’t want India to become a killing ground for African cheetahs. We’ll be embarrassed internationally.”
In January this year, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) released the Cheetah Action Plan (pdf). This is the framework for transporting, monitoring and conserving African cheetahs in India. And as we will see, it’s rife with causes for concern.
But before we get to the Cheetah Action Plan or CAP, we must revisit the roots of India’s obsession with cheetahs. It’s a story about royalty, geopolitics, inter-state rivalry, human displacement, and bad science.
The people who legitimised the cheetah programme are towering figures in wildlife conservation. They’re also scions of Gujarat’s erstwhile royal families.
The first, MK Ranjitsinh Jhala, was India’s first wildlife director. He drafted the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and also chaired the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). His ancestors ruled Wankaner.
Ranjitsinh’s relative Yadvendradev Vikramsinh Jhala is a carnivore expert, the dean of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII)—an autonomous research institute under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC)—and the institute’s most published scientist. His ancestors ruled Wadhwan.
The third, Divyabhanusinh Chavda, is from the Mansa royal clan. His book The End of a Trail: The Cheetah in India is a pioneering work on the history of the animal. Chavda is India’s foremost expert on the Asiatic cheetah. He was former president of WWF India and sits on its advisory board.
Of the trio, Ranjitsinh is the most vocal advocate of India’s cheetah programme. By his own admission, he’s been at it since the 1970s. India’s last sighting of the Asiatic cheetah was in 1967, and Ranjitsinh—whose ancestors, like many Indian royals, tamed cheetahs to hunt game—turned nostalgia into a national passion project. Indira Gandhi’s government initiated talks with Iran, the only other country that housed the Asiatic cheetah.
But then came the Emergency, and two years after that came the Iranian Revolution. The country’s last ruler and US-aligned Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini, who established the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ranjitsinh’s wish was crushed by a geopolitical storm.
Not for long though. Over the course of four decades, multiple political dispensations resuscitated one man’s dogged dream:
Ranjitsinh, now an octogenarian, shaped wildlife conservation in India. But he has a princely hangover. He speaks highly of royals who hunted for sport, claiming wildlife thrived in their territories, and that the practice maintained ecosystems. In a panel discussion, he proclaims, “the cheetah [project] won’t cost money”.
The cost of cheetah introduction was ₹300 crore in the 2010s, back when multiple sites were considered for African cheetahs. As per the CAP, Kuno alone will cost nearly ₹92 crore. That may be chump change for tech and business folks, but for perspective, it’s about 42% of the all-India fund for Project Tiger—at a time when the MoEFCC budget is shrinking.
This pipe dream—and the crores Madhya Pradesh spent—trumped virtually every other MoEFCC priority.
There’s a reason MP is invested in the Kuno project. It’s been 22 years since the area was prepped for another animal that never arrived: the Asiatic lion.
India’s lions, found only in Gujarat, live in and around the Gir National Park. It’s a conservation success story that conceals disturbing truths. Most pressing is the fact that the lions have nowhere to go. Swelling numbers means that they’re dispersing beyond protected areas and coming in contact with more humans than ever before. The cloistered population is also vulnerable to epidemics, having lost individuals to babesiosis, canine distemper virus (CDV), and a host of diseases that can wipe out an inbred population. You read that right. Gujarat’s (now 674) lions are so inbred, their genetic diversity is worse than the descendants of the 10 lions that once remained in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater.
Which is why Kuno was identified in the ’90s as a second home for the Asiatic lion. But Gujarat refused to share. The 2013 SC order that stayed the cheetah project also ordered Gujarat to send lions to Kuno. The state is flouting the order to this day.
MP was in a bind. It’d cleared 24 villages in and around Kuno and resettled nearly 5,000 people (pdf), with nothing to show for it. The displaced locals—most notably Sahariya tribals—suffered livelihood insecurity despite compensation. The 2010 WII-WTI report recommending Kuno for African cheetahs said another 169 villages may need to be cleared. MP didn’t hesitate because this new project would give it a much-needed shot in the arm.
Not to be outdone, Narendra Modi, then the Gujarat CM, announced that his state too would house the cheetah. His proclamation went bust after cheetah-obsessed Jairam Ramesh was transferred from the environment ministry to the rural development ministry.
While the MP-Gujarat drama hogged headlines, the WII-WTI/Jhala-Ranjitsinh report slipped under the radar. As ecologist Ghazala Shahabuddin noted in her 2015 paper ‘Reclaiming the Grassland for the Cheetah: Science and Nature Conservation in India’, this report had glaring discrepancies:
“The WII-WTI report deemed 3200 sq km as sufficient for 100 cheetah, after the initial released population multiplied and dispersed out. However… it was obvious that the report had made a considerable under-estimate and much more area, approximately 12,700 sq km, would be needed for 100 cheetah.
The approach to calculation of prey density, the most crucial determinant of habitat suitability for the cheetah, was also wanting in rigour. Prey density was extrapolated from unpublished data collected five years earlier in 2005 by a PhD student. To this data, an annual growth rate of 5 percent was applied uniformly to all the existing species. Densities of different prey species were not given separately.
Inadequate information was generated that did not involve social scientists or village groups… there were no interviews in the larger target area of 3200 sq km.
The WII-WTI report used incomplete and even questionable data, both social and ecological, for justifying the ambitious project.”
One scientist who helped conduct assessments for this report spoke out against this approach. He also criticised WII’s ‘rapid assessment’ study in 2020 for contentious subsampling.
Nevertheless, the MoEFCC employed similar techniques for the CAP. Its guidelines are now a matter of life and death for the African cheetahs that will arrive here.
Supporters of the cheetah project say there’s virtually no genetic distance between African and Asiatic cheetahs. They use this argument as a counter against anyone who believes India isn’t a suitable home for cheetahs from another continent.
But it isn’t about genetics. It’s about how much land is available for a carnivore whose home range can be as small as 35 sq km to as large as 1,500 sq km. It all depends on food availability; the more abundant the prey, the less likely cheetahs will travel far and wide for food. Female cheetahs have especially huge ranges. All in all, the IUCN estimates that cheetah populations need nearly 10,000 sq km of uninterrupted habitat to thrive.
Kuno-Palpur’s designated area isn’t enough for a breeding population. And prey density is poor. CAP lists several food sources, but the only animals this delicate cat can consistently hunt are chital, chinkara, and chowsingha. And…
“Chinkara and chowsingha numbers are very low. Hare and peafowl are more like a snack and would not provide enough energy to breed and raise cubs. Nilgai calves are ok. The sambar [large deer, whose fawn could’ve provided sustenance] population is not large here since it prefers hilly areas,” AJT Johnsingh tells The Intersection. Johnsingh, one of India’s seniormost conservationists, was part of the expert committee that recced Kuno for the Asiatic lion.
Then there’s the problem of free-ranging stray dogs. As inhabitants of villages near protected areas, these dogs endanger wildlife across the country. Apart from being carriers of CDV, feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), and parvovirus, they’ve attacked and killed otters, deer, wolves, hyenas, wild cats, and even leopards. India has among the highest populations of free-ranging dogs worldwide, to the point that the NTCA flagged man’s best friend as a threat to wild populations. But there’s no policy to manage them.
Cheetahs are susceptible to CDV, FIP, and rabies. This is especially grim when you consider that their cubs have the highest mortality rates of all big cats. In some parts of Africa, only half reach adulthood; other populations have a cub survival rate of just 5%.
The CAP notes that “domestic dogs were abundant” in Kuno, and that “they could pose a risk to cheetahs”. As a solution, it recommends inoculating cheetahs, alongside vaccinating and sterilising dogs in the region. There are no specific long-term measures.
“You can’t wait-and-watch. The effects of sterilisation aren’t immediate, and you can’t keep vaccinating animals. What you need is village-level dog management with locals’ participation,” says Abi Vanak, a senior fellow at ATREE who’s researched free-ranging dogs for years.
But perhaps the most egregious assertion in the CAP is that if the cheetah project succeeds, “Kuno offers the prospect of housing four large felids of India—tiger, lion, leopard and cheetah to coexist as they did in the past [sic].”
It’s a bold claim for two reasons. One, because it doesn’t shun lion translocation–much to Gujarat’s displeasure. And two, because no conservationist this reporter spoke to believes four big cats can coexist in a 3,200 sq km area. This region is not only home to numerous leopards, but doubles as a corridor for some tigers dispersing to and from MP and Rajasthan. The cheetah stands no chance against three bigger cats.
What’s more, the CAP recommends a 2.5m-tall fence for the cheetah enclosure to keep out leopards. Here’s what Ashok Kumar Sharma, a retired forest service officer who once headed the Gujarat Forest Department, says about this:
“Leopards can jump over 2.5m. Also, what’s the point of erecting fences that’ll be removed after cheetahs are released from enclosures?” he asks.
The CAP also has plans for camelback patrolling and tourism, of course. One sent Valmik Thapar snapshots of some proposals for cheetah holding areas and fence dimensions.
“All this is fatally flawed. It makes no sense, and [has been] put together by persons with no experience of cheetahs in the wild. It smacks of being ad hoc and unrealistic. Not even worthy of comment,” he responds.
Scientific wisdom has ceded to a goulash of unscientific developments peppered with Ram bharose. But for the sake of the African cheetahs coming to India, this writer hopes she is dead wrong about everything.
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