Asiatic lions sidelined by African cheetahs

Wildlife biologist and conservationist Ravi Chellam discusses the unconstitutional and unscientific methods used to introduce the Namibian cheetah to India.

Wildlife biologist and conservationist Ravi Chellam discusses the unconstitutional and unscientific methods used to introduce the Namibian cheetah to India.

The reintroduction of African cheetahs in India’s Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh, has sparked a controversy with animal experts and conservationists warning against bringing the big cat here.

Ravi Chellam, Executive Director of the Metastring Foundation, a wildlife biologist and conservation scientist during a talk titled ‘Asian Lions and African Cheetahs: A Modern Conservation Conundrum’ at the Bangalore International Centre, said he was not just bringing the cheetahs from Namibia to Kuno unscientific, but also unconstitutional.

The talk, accompanied by a colorful slideshow of images from Ravi’s personal collection, showcased the tawny cats’ journey.

Mr. Ravi Chellam gave a talk on Asiatic Lions and African Cheetahs in Bangalore on September 20 at the Bangalore International Centre.

Mr. Ravi Chellam gave a talk on Asiatic Lions and African Cheetahs in Bangalore on September 20 at the Bangalore International Centre. | Photo credit: Bangalore International Center

Long before the introduction of African cheetahs was formulated in 2009, Kuno was selected to host an Asiatic Gir lion metapopulation in Gujarat.

While the majority of Asiatic lions are found in sub-Saharan Africa, a small population resides in the Gir forest of Gujarat. These majestic creatures are often found lounging under banyan trees, walking down dusty paths, and even crossing the train tracks that run through Gir National Park.

Although the lion population fell below 20 in the early 20th century, efforts to conserve Gir’s only remaining lions have produced excellent results.

However, this is not enough.

“Having a metapopulation is like having health insurance. None of us buy health insurance thinking that he will die or get sick; is to have an alternative option if something goes wrong. Say there’s a cyclone or political upheaval or a wildfire or even a disease outbreak, there’s evidence that the status of endangered species like lions is much better if you have multiple populations,” Ravi said.

As one of India’s foremost wildlife biologists, Ravi Chellam was part of the team that surveyed several sites suitable for lion translocation. Having focused on Kuno in 1994, he submitted the proposal to the government in 1995. The plan was approved.

An Asiatic lioness and her three cubs bask in the sun at the Asiatic Lions Safari Park and breeding center at Sakkarbaug Zoo in Junagadh. Photo: VIJAY SONEJI/The Hindu.

An Asiatic lioness and her three cubs bask in the sun at the Asiatic Lions Safari Park and breeding center at Sakkarbaug Zoo in Junagadh. Photo: VIJAY SONEJI/The Hindu.

Kuno, named after a river in northwestern Madhya Pradesh, began its preparation to welcome the lions. As many as 24 villages, home to more than 1,543 families, were displaced, the dam was brought in, and the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary was given National Park status, the strictest type of protected area in India. However, the lions were not moved.

In response to a PIL filed in 2006, the Supreme Court in 2013 ordered the translocation of lions from Gir National Park to Kuno National Park within 6 months in letter and spirit. Nine years have passed since then, and still the lions have not reached Kuno.

“The delay in the translocation of Asiatic lions is quite worrying. The ruling has clearly established that no state, organization or person can claim ownership or possession of wild animals in forests. It is the duty of the state to protect and conserve wildlife to ensure the ecological security of the country,” Ravi said.

The ruling also said that the introduction of African cheetahs cannot stand in the way of the law.

The Gujarat state government has stopped the translocation of Asiatic lions based on untenable excuses. It has cited guidelines from the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a block to the translocation of lions, according to Ravi.

Going a step further, in 2016 the National Tiger Conservation Authority petitioned the Supreme Court to re-examine the introduction of African cheetahs to India. While making the petition, NTCA noted that the translocation of lions to Kuno would not be negatively affected.

A cheetah after being released into a special enclosure at Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh.

A cheetah after being released into a special enclosure at Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh.

In January 2020, field studies were conducted in a matter of 12 days. “Six sites were evaluated. Some sites were evaluated in less than a day. Where did you spend most of your time? Kuno. They spent four of the 12 days at a site they said they didn’t even need to inspect,” Ravi told the audience.

Looking at the ecological side of the cheetah introduction, he pointed out glaring inconsistencies in the habitat prepared for the cheetahs.

Asiatic lions are still waiting for their new home in Kuno

– In 1995, the Government of India accepted the proposal to relocate Asiatic lions from Gir to Kuno National Park.

– Following a PIL filed in 2006, the Supreme Court in 2013 ordered the translocation of the lions to Kuno within 6 months. The court also squashed the application for the introduction of African cheetahs.

– The Gujarat government has stalled the transfer of the lions citing IUCN guidelines as the main obstacle.

– In 2018, in response to a petition from the NTCA, the Supreme Court said that African cheetahs can be brought in on an experimental basis.

– Kuno National Park, despite not being on the list of areas to be considered as home for cheetahs, was selected to be their base.

– With an area of ​​only 748 km2, the Cheetah Introduction Plan aims to establish a population of 21 cheetahs in the coming decades.

Cheetahs, on average, live at a very low density compared to other big cats with 1 individual per 100 square kilometers. To successfully introduce Namibian cheetahs to India, the big cat requires at least 10,000-20,000 square kilometers of land to live comfortably.

These big cats are among the most fragile of the big cats, their only advantage being their tremendous speed. As the fastest land animal on Earth, cheetahs can cover 100 meters in just three seconds. With a preference for open grasslands (although they can adapt to other ecosystems), they need large areas of land.

The average home range of female cheetahs is around 760 square kilometers. Although not considered their territory, the home range is the average area that cheetahs cover in a year. However, the Kuno National Park has a land area of ​​only 748 square kilometers. With plans to bring in 50 cheetahs in the next 5 to 10 years and have 21 cheetahs as an established population, Kuno National Park is too small to support a viable population, Ravi said.

“Kuno National Park can accommodate a maximum of 10 cheetahs, which in itself is a generous estimate. But is 10 cheetahs a viable population? For a viable population, you must be talking about 15,000-20,000 square kilometers of habitat. That’s the kind of space that cheetahs require.”

A cheetah lies on a mound in Masai Mara National Park, Kenya, September 2, 2022. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

A cheetah lies on a mound in Masai Mara National Park, Kenya, September 2, 2022. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

One of the goals that the introduction of the cheetah plans to achieve is to conserve grassland and open woodland ecosystems. “In saving cheetahs, one would have to save not only their prey base comprising certain threatened species, but also other endangered species of grassland and open forest ecosystems, some of which are on the verge of extinction. ”, says a government. report.

Against this, Ravi said: “How can 21 cheetahs in Kuno save the thousands of square kilometers that have been classified as wasteland? Open forest and grassland ecosystems are spread throughout the country. These are considered vacant land and are often earmarked for solar and wind power projects. These cause large-scale degradation and fragmentation.”

To truly conserve the grasslands, Ravi suggests ditching the term ‘wasteland’ to describe the rich biodiverse ecosystem instead of bringing in cheetahs from Africa.

The cheetahs landed in Kuno National Park on September 17.

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