Context: India has signed an agreement with South Africa to translocate 12 cheetahs to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh
About the Pact
- The Republic of South Africa and the Republic of India have signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Re-introduction of Cheetah to the Asian country. In terms of the agreement, an initial batch of 12 cheetahs are to be flown from South Africa to India during February 2023. The cats will join eight cheetahs introduced to India from Namibia during 2022.
- Following the import of the 12 cheetahs in February, the plan is to translocate a further 12 annually for the next eight to 10 years
- Cheetahs are very adaptable and had a wide distribution until 100 years ago including being found in some areas of India.
- They will be able to survive most of the climate conditions in India. Cheetahs can adapt to seasonal shifts. They also contend with extreme rain and wet seasons in Africa, much like in India.
- For hunting, cheetahs do well in open savannahs and grassland environments and can also occur in areas with moderate woody vegetation cover.
- Cheetahs also benefit from high grass or bush areas that enable them to remain undetected while stalking prey.
- The cheetah is believed to have originated in South Africa and spread across the world through land connectivity. In the Kalahari, the cheetah was once critically endangered due to poaching and hunting. But now, with healthy female cheetahs producing five to six cubs each, South Africa is rapidly running out of space for its cheetah population.
- According to a study, fewer than 7,100 cheetahs remain in the world.
- IUCN status: The cheetah is listed as Vulnerable by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
- Two subspecies, the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) and the Northwest African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki) are listed as critically endangered.
- The cheetah’s historical distribution in Africa covered a substantial portion of the continent, but because of range contraction in the last century, the cheetah is found in only 9% of its historic range, of which 77 % is outside of protected areas.
- The species is nearly extinct in its entire Asian range, except for a remnant population in Iran, about 20 individuals or less.
- Southern/eastern African cheetah range includes the eight countries of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya. This is the largest population of wild cheetahs in the world.
- Smaller, fragmented populations of the Horn of Africa cheetah, also called the Somali cheetah, are found in some parts of Ethiopia and some of the Horn of Africa countries, although their numbers have never been officially recorded.
How did cheetahs go extinct in India?
- The cheetah has an ancient history in the country, with a Neolithic cave painting of a ‘slender spotted feline being hunted’ having been found at Chaturbunj Nala in Mandasur, Madhya Pradesh. The name ‘cheetah’ is believed to have originated from Sanskrit word chitrak, which means ‘the spotted one’.
- In India, the cheetah population used to be fairly widespread. The animal was found from Jaipur and Lucknow in the north to Mysore in the south, and from Kathiawar in the west to Deogarh in the east.
- The cheetah is believed to have disappeared from the Indian landscape in 1947 when Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya princely state hunted down and shot the last three recorded Asiatic cheetahs in India. The cheetah was officially declared extinct by the Indian government in 1952.
- While over-hunting was a major contributing factor for the cheetah’s extinction, the decimation of its relatively narrow prey base species and the loss of its grassland-forest habitat also played a role. During the decades preceding independence, as well as those after, India’s emphasis on agriculture – which included acquiring and parcelling off grassland – led to a decline in the cheetah’s habitat.
- Since the 1940s, the cheetah has gone extinct in 14 other countries – Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Morocco, Syria, Oman, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Ghana, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Why is the cheetah being brought back?
- The aim behind the translocation is not only to restore India’s ‘historic evolutionary balance’, but also to develop a cheetah ‘metapopulation’ that will help in the global conservation of the animal.
- As it is a flagship species, the conservation of the cheetah will revive grassland-forests and its biome and habitat, much like Project Tiger has done for forests and all the species found in these forests. Project Tiger has also resulted in the conservation of 250 water bodies found in India’s 52 Tiger Reserves. The Cheetah Project is likely to have a similar impact.
- The translocation project has also helped conservation efforts in Africa, in particular South Africa. The South African cheetah population had dwindled two decades ago, before the conservation programme ensured that the numbers increased – of the global cheetah population of 7,000, 4,500 belong to South Africa.
Reasons for Translocation from Africa
- With a genetically healthy population, the numbers are growing even within these comparatively small private reserves. If this continues, the cheetahs will decimate the prey in these areas. We may need to start using contraceptives on cheetahs to control the population. This will be very unfortunate as once contraception is used, there is no guarantee that the female cheetah will regain fertility once the effect of the contraceptive wears off. We need to look at cheetahs as a global population, a metapopulation, instead of breaking them into fragments of small species, which I think is a terrible idea.
- Especially in the case of cheetahs where the genetic difference between the African and Indian cheetahs is so small, and the ecological functions are practically the same
Have there been earlier attempts to bring back the cheetah?
- While attempts to relocate cheetahs to India began in 2009, it was only in 2020 that the Supreme Court of India finally gave the green signal for such efforts.
- India’s first attempt to bring back the cheetah was in the early 1970s. Dr Ranjitsinh was tasked with carrying out negotiations with Iran on behalf of the Indira Gandhi government.
- “Indira Gandhi was very keen on bringing back the cheetah. The negotiations went well and Iran had promised us the cheetah. But our potential release sites needed to be upgraded with an increase in prey base and greater protection. Moreover, during the process, Emergency was declared in the country and soon after, the regime of the Shah of Iran fell,’’ said Dr Ranjitsinh.
- While the Persian Cheetah was preferred for relocation, as it was Asiatic, this is no longer possible as the cheetah population in Iran has dwindled to under 50.
How was Kuno National Park chosen for the translocation?
- Six sites, which had been previously assessed in 2010 for the translocation of the Asiatic Lion, were re-assessed by WII in 2020 – Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve and Shergarh Wildlife Sanctuary, both in Rajasthan, and Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kuno National Park, Madhav National Park and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary, which are in Madhya Pradesh.
- Of these six sites, Kuno, which had been monitored since 2006, was found to be ready to receive the cheetah immediately, as it had already been prepared for the Asiatic Lion. Both animals share the same habitat – semi-arid grasslands and forests that stretch across Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
- In Kuno National Park, because of the lion relocation project, the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department had already relocated 24 of the 25 villages and declared it a national park, which led to “remarkable recovery in its habitat, prey abundance and reduction of human impact”, according to the assessment carried out by WII in 2020.
About Cheetahs in India
- The cheetah’s history in India dates back to Neolithic times when a cave painting of a creature that looked like a spotted feline was discovered in Mandasur, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. It’s believed that the name cheetah came from the Sanskrit word ‘chitrak’, which literally means “the spotted one.”
- In India, the cheetah population was fairly widespread. The animal was commonly seen in various areas such as Lucknow and Jaipur and also in Mysore, Kathiawar, and even in the east
- It’s believed that the cheetah went extinct from India in 1947 after the Koriya’s ruler, Ramanuj Singhdeo, killed the last three Asiatic cheetahs in the country. The animal was officially declared extinct only in 1952
Threat of Extinction faced by Cheetahs:
- Cheetahs face the threat of extinction due to climate adversity, hunting by humans, and habitat destruction, gradually reducing the size of their populations worldwide.
- Cheetahs require large areas of land with suitable food, water, and habitats to survive. Human development and expansion cause destruction and fragmentation of wild lands and affect the cheetah’s available habitat and movements.
- Numerous landscapes across Africa that once were shelters for numerous cheetahs are now struggling with fewer numbers. Under the Species Recovery Program of the Indian government, species that become extinct are restored in their historic natural habitat.
About Kuno National Park
- Kuno National Park is a national park and Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, India. It derives its name from Kuno River.
- It was established in 1981 as a wildlife sanctuary with an initial area of 344.686 km² in the Sheopur and Morena districts.
- Before the creation of the national park, Kuno was a wildlife sanctuary, also called the Palpur-Kuno wildlife sanctuary. In 2018, it was given the status of a national park.
- Kuno park is known for its leopard, jackal, and Chinkara.
- The Wildlife Institute of India and the Wildlife Trust of India had shortlisted Palpur-Kuno park as a habitat for cheetahs and Asiatic lions.
- The cheetah that once roamed in India’s northern plains became extinct in India in 1948.
- In January 2022, environment minister Bhupender Yadav launched the action plan for reintroducing cheetahs in India, starting with Kuno national park.
- On 17 September 2022, five female and three male cheetahs aged 4 to 6 years arrived in Kuno National Park from Namibia.