Cheetah is a flagship species of a highly endangered ecosystem of the country — the grasslands. Cheetah is also the only species to go extinct in peninsular India in historical times.
The Supreme Court lifted its seven-year stay on a proposal to introduce African cheetahs from Namibia into the Indian habitat on an experimental basis. The plan was to revive the Indian cheetah population.
Asiatic cheetahs in India
- In 1947, Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh of Deoghar of Koriya, Chhattisgarh — who was infamous for shooting over 1,150 tigers — reportedly killed the last known Asiatic cheetah in India.
- In that year, a few miles from Ramgarh village in the state, the Maharaja killed three of the animals — brothers — during a night drive.
- After that, the Maharaja’s kin continued to report the presence of a few stragglers in the forests of Surguja district, including a pregnant female, up until the late 1960s.
- Some more unconfirmed sightings were reported in 1951 and 1952, from the Orissa-Andhra Pradesh border and Chittoor district.
- The latter sighting is generally accepted to be the final credible sighting of a cheetah in India. In 1952, the cheetah was officially declared extinct from India.
- There are very few Asiatic cheetahs left in the world and therefore we could not get them from anywhere. Moreover, under the guidelines of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), foreign species cannot be introduced.
- DNA tests of the African Cheetah from Namibia have found that the species’ DNA is 89 per cent similar to the Asiatic Cheetah.
- Former prime minister Indira Gandhi had signed an agreement with Iran to exchange Asiatic lions for Asiatic cheetahs in the late 1970s. At the time, there were around 250 Asiatic cheetahs in Iran. Now, there are only around 28.
African cheetah and Asiatic cheetah
- Before Namibia, India had approached Iran for Asiatic cheetahs, but had been refused.
- The Asiatic cheetah is classified as a “critically endangered” species by the IUCN Red List, and is believed to survive only in Iran.
- From 400 in the 1990s, their numbers are estimated to have plummetted to 50-70 today, because of poaching, hunting of their main prey (gazelles) and encroachment on their habitat.
- ‘Critically endangered’ means that the species faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.
Why does NTCA want to reintroduce cheetahs?
- A section of conservationists has long advocated the reintroduction of the species in the country.
- Reintroductions of large carnivores have increasingly been recognised as a strategy to conserve threatened species and restore ecosystem functions.
- The cheetah is the only large carnivore that has been extirpated, mainly by over-hunting in India in historical times.
- India now has the economic ability to consider restoring its lost natural heritage for ethical as well as ecological reasons.
Why was the project halted?
- The court was also worried whether the African cheetahs would find the sanctuary a favourable clime as far as abundance of prey is concerned.
- Those who challenged the plan argued that the habitat of cheetahs needed to support a genetically viable population.
Supreme court views
- The court has now asked NTCA to conduct a survey to find a new site for the re-introduction to reassess the potential of Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary and also see if there are any sites which might prove to be better. The court has asked NTCA to submit reports every four months.
- Every effort should be taken to ensure that they adapt to the Indian conditions.
- The committee would help, advice and monitor the NTCA on these issues. The action of the introduction of the animal would be left to the NTCA’s discretion.