A Brief History of India’s Date with the Cheetah

In 1947, Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya, Surguja, in what is now known as Chhattisgarh, shot dead the last three recorded Asiatic cheetahs in India.

With that, the Asiatic cheetah was declared extinct in India in 1952.

However, on September 17, 74 years later, eight cheetahs arrived from Namibia as part of the Center’s elaborate plan to reintroduce feral cats to the country.

We take a look at how this majestic creature, which roamed India years ago, became extinct and how the country reintroduced the species and what the problems may be.

Cheetahs in India

The world’s first cheetah to be bred in captivity was in India during the rule of Mughal Emperor Jahangir in the 16th century. His father, Akbar, recorded that there were 10,000 cheetahs during his time, including 1,000 of them at his court.

A BBC The report states that between 1799 and 1968 there were at least 230 cheetahs in the wild in India.

There is no definitive answer as to why the cheetah, the world’s fastest land animal, became extinct in India, but most experts attribute it to extensive hunting and habitat loss.

From Extinction to Reintroduction A Brief History of India's Rendezvous with the Cheetah

Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya, Surguja shot three of the last cheetahs in India in 1948. Image Courtesy: Bombay Natural History Society.

In those days, the animal, which was found throughout the country, except in the high mountains, was hunted for generosity and sport. Reports say that a large number of cheetahs were wiped out during British rule as feral cats entered villages and killed livestock.

Some attribute the extinction to desertification (the process by which fertile land turns into a desert), which may have taken away the animal’s natural habitat.

Plan to reintroduce cheetahs

In the 1970s, Indira Gandhi was very interested in bringing back the cheetah and the Department of the Environment formally wrote to the Iranian government requesting the reintroduction of Asiatic cheetahs into use and apparently received a positive response. Unfortunately, those talks stalled when an emergency was soon declared in the nation and the Shah of Iran fell from power.

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In 2009, the problem was reignited and it was decided that the African cheetah would be used for introduction to India.

The issue gained further momentum in September of the same year when the Ministry of Environment and Forests, through the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), organized a meeting in Gajner, Rajasthan, to discuss the issue.

The meeting was co-hosted by WII in association with the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), a leading Delhi-based NGO. The Cheetah Conservation Fund, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and other NGOs were represented, as were high-ranking officials from various state forestry departments.

From Extinction to Reintroduction A Brief History of India's Rendezvous with the Cheetah

Efforts to reintroduce cheetahs to India have been going on since 2009. AFP

Ten sites in five central states were surveyed and Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, which is spread over 261 square kilometers and has a healthy population of chital, sambar, nilgai, wild pigs, chinkara and cattle, emerged as one of the most promising habitats for the cheetah.

On January 6, 2022, Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav launched the action plan saying, “The cheetah that became extinct in independent India is ready to return.”

Interestingly, this is the first time in the world that a large carnivore was moved from one continent to another.

The cheetah was expected to be reintroduced to the country in November 2021 in Madhya Pradesh, but the plan was derailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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According to plans, the cheetahs were transported by air to India and by helicopter to the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary.

They were anesthetized prior to transport, and radio collars were placed on them so that once released in India, they would already be restrained in case of escape or long-distance movement.

The animals will be fed natural prey while in the detention facility.

Reintroduction concerns

The reintroduction of animals is not an easy task and carries many risks. However, it is not uncommon either. In 2017, four cheetahs were reintroduced to Malawi, where the cat became extinct in the late 1980s.

Some experts are wary of the process; according to a report in The conversationSome experts have pointed out that the cheetah is a wide-ranging species, known to travel across areas of up to 1,000 square kilometers in a single year. Indian parks tend to be much smaller than those in Africa, offering less scope for free movement.

Furthermore, the report states that Kuno might not be a favorable location as there is no data to show that cheetahs, lions, tigers and leopards can comfortably co-exist in the same habitat. It’s never happened anywhere else before, so there’s no real-life experience to fall back on.

From Extinction to Reintroduction A Brief History of India's Rendezvous with the Cheetah

Cheetah reintroduction is not an easy task and carries many risks. AFP

Wildlife expert Shubhobroto Ghosh, writing for World Animal Protectionhe also stated that African cheetahs are substantially different from Asiatic cheetahs that were found in India before they became extinct.

He adds that attention to the new cheetahs may drain resources from wildlife protection efforts that are already struggling to protect the endangered animals. This means that monitoring reintroduced animals will be costly and time consuming.

But there are others who also believe that there are huge positive dividends if the process is successful.

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For example, MK Ranjitsinh, former director of Wildlife Conservation, in a IndiaSpend The interview was quoted as saying: “In the process of obtaining cheetahs, if we assess our grasslands and work on them to make them suitable for introduction, we will have already accomplished a lot. We should also focus on grassland and forest mosaics. Cheetahs can survive both in grasslands and in mosaics of grasslands and forests.

Dr. Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, a world leader in cheetah research and conservation, in an interview for national herald he had said that ‘it would be exciting to think that India would have cheetahs again’.

“To save cheetahs from extinction, we need to create more permanent places for them on Earth. India has grassland and forest habitat areas, which may still be suitable for this species. The government is progressive-minded and open to exploring the concept of introducing cheetahs to encourage healthy biodiversity. They are looking at the big picture, considering the big landscape approach. We think they are setting a wonderful precedent with the decision to translocate the species,” he said.

Cheetahs in the world and their population in decline

According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are only an estimated 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild, and their future remains uncertain.

The cheetah is considered vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Please see: Saving cheetahs from extinction, one cub at a time

They are mainly found in the eastern and southern mountain ranges of Africa, south of the Sahara desert. Small populations are also found in North Africa and Iran. As of 2015, more than 3,500 cheetahs live in Namibia.

While we can’t say if the government’s plan to reintroduce cheetahs will work, we can say we’re looking forward to hearing the cheetah growl in India again.

With contributions from agencies

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