The African Cheetah Experiment in India: Is it worth anything?

Suhas Kumar

The nation is rejoicing at the arrival of the African Cheetah in Kuno National Park. Eight of them have been translocated (flown) from Namibia. There is a general euphoria among a section of the public that believes India has achieved a great conservation milestone.

There are also people who are questioning certain tall claims made by the proponents of the projects and also contesting the assertion by them that it is a ‘reintroduction’ of a species -the Asiatic Cheetah-that was extirpated in India seven decades ago.  This claim is based on a belief that the Southern African Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) and the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) are closely related (nearly identical). The media is frequently using the scientific term- ‘reintroduction’ and describe this as “Ghar Vapsee”. 

The second claim by the proponents is that the cheetah brought to India will fulfill an ecological role as a predator by keeping the herbivore population in control.

The third claim insists that the African cheetah in India would catalyze the restoration of the grassland ecosystems that harbour some endangered species of animals such as the caracal and wolves and the Great Indian Bustard and Lesser Florican among birds. The proponents seriously believe that only a flagship species like the cheetah has the charisma to mobilize funds and resources and public attention to our grassland ecosystems across India. 

According to the Cheetah Action Plan prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the Madhya Pradesh forest department, the long-term plan is to import (translocate) into India more cheetah not only to Kuno but to other protected areas of Madhya Pradesh. Nauradehi and Gandhisagar sanctuaries are already in the queue.

Let us examine the veracity of these claims.



Is the African cheetah translocation to Kuno national park a Reintroduction/Conservation Introduction or a plain and arbitrary Introduction?

Wildlife Conservation does not operate on the whims and fancies of individuals, its foundation is in science. The leading International Conservation organization- the International Union for Conservation of Nature and National Resources (IUCN) has prepared comprehensive Guidelines for the reintroduction and other conservation translocations of organisms. The principles enunciated in this document are adhered to worldwide. 

The common practice of conservation of wildlife (organisms) involves the in-situ protection and management in which wildlife is conserved in its natural habitat and the other method is the ex-situ conservation, where the animals and plants or their genetic material (seeds, sperm, etc.) are preserved in a controlled manner. Animals are reared in captive facilities to serve as a repository of genes, as a center for the conservation breeding of endangered species, and for creating awareness among the public. 

When the population of a species decimates to a threateningly low number in its natural habitat, exposing it to the peril of extinction, or the species gets extirpated owing to anthropogenic changes in its habitat or from a natural calamity or disease, the desired practice is to translocate it to a secure and suitable habitat to ensure its continuity (in the case where an organism is already extinct in its natural habitat the founder population is sourced from a zoo). 

The translocation of a species to another habitat within its indigenous range is called “Reintroduction”.

The reintroduction of one-horned rhinoceros from Assam and Nepal to Dudhwa National park, Uttar Pradesh, in 1984-1985, the loss of all tigers from Panna in 2009, and its subsequent repopulation with tigers through translocations of tigers from Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Pench tiger reserves, Translocation of hardground Barasingha to Bori in Satpura tiger reserve in 2015-2016, are some excellent examples of reintroductions carried out in India.

The Other term that is defined in the IUCN Reintroduction Guidelines (2013) is the conservation intervention called–“Conservation Introduction”. The Guidelines explain as follows-

While in the case where the original indigenous organism is not available then the guidelines suggest using the most suitable existing sub-species, or a close relative of the extinct species within the same genus that is similar in appearance, ecology, and behavior to the extinct form; this is referred to as Conservation introduction.

IUCN Reintroduction Guidelines (2013)

The Cheetah Action Plan mentions the above principle in section 5.7.  

Translocation of any species outside its indigenous range (Conservation Introduction) is recommended only in the case of a species, where survival of that species seems impossible in its indigenous range. This is the rarest and most drastic conservation measure that managers take to ensure the long-term continuity of a species that is critically endangered or already extinct in its natural habitat. 

Is then the act of translocating African cheetah into India should be called  “ Conservation Introduction” and not “reintroduction”? let us examine that too:

Till 2009, the African (A. jubatus jubatus) and the Asiatic Cheetah (A. jubatus venaticus) were believed to be genetically very similar to each other. Later, a study published in 2011 concluded that the African subspecies A. jubatus jubatus genetically diverged from the Asiatic cheetah (A.j. venaticus) 67,000–32,000 years ago.

Now there is enough genetic evidence to treat the Southern African Subspecies of cheetah and the Asiatic cheetah as two distinct species (Charruau, P. et.al. 2011). There is no record of inter-species genetic interaction between southern African and Asiatic cheetah. 

Another paper by Stefan Prost et.al. (Not peer reviewed) has made an interesting remark on how the Southern African cheetah  got approved as a fit candidate  for introduction to India:  In September 2009 Indian and International experts, at the Consultative Meeting in Gajner, suggested to introduce individuals from Africa to India42, as the current wild populations of A. j. venaticus are highly threatened and only about 50-70 individuals remain in the wild. This was further supported by a small-scale multi-locus genetic analysis7. In this study the authors argue that cheetah subspecies are very closely related and that genetic distances between Asian and African cheetah subspecies are equal to those within Africa, and suggested the introduction of African cheetahs to India. However, our genome-wide data shows that differentiation in cheetahs (average FST of 0.34 for cheetah subspecies) is similar or even higher than that found in other large endangered felids such as the tiger25 (0.27), and indicate a strong genome-wide differentiation of Asian and African subspecies. Based on our genome-wide data we argue against the release of African cheetahs in India, and for more genetic research to be carried out before a potential introduction of African cheetah subspecies, especially in the light of a substantial lack of information on regional adaptation in the different subspecies.

So, the use of the word ‘Reintroduction’ in this case is erroneous.  Even the use of the term “Conservation Introduction” appears inappropriate for the following reasons:

Despite the drastic reduction in the population of Cheetah (A. jubatus jubatus) in Southern Africa, they are not under the threat of imminent extinction in their indigenous range. Even the IUCN Red Data book lists them as ‘vulnerable’ while the Asiatic Cheetah is listed as ‘critically endangered. All African cheetah subspecies along with other threatened species of Africa are already under the umbrella of the CITES-CMS African Carnivores Initiative (ACI) and efforts are on to revive their population in their indigenous range with success. Therefore, there was no conservation emergency for translocating cheetahs to a far-off place that was never a part of its indigenous range.

The need for conservation introduction from outside the indigenous range of the species arises either to fill in a vacant niche or to revive an ecological function at the destination that was performed by an extinct indigenous species. In this case, in the Cheetah Action Plan prepared by WII and NTCA the ecological role of the Cheetah is described as follows:

Establish viable cheetah metapopulation in India that allows the cheetah to perform its functional role as a top predator and provides space for the expansion of the cheetah within its historical range thereby contributing to its global conservation efforts.

 The introduction to the Cheetah Action Plan lists the following biological role for the introduced Cheetahs:

“biological objectives i.e. a) re-establish the ecosystem function role of the cheetah in representative areas of its former range and b) contribute to the global effort towards the conservation of the cheetah as a species”.

I consider this justification far-fetched as there is a good population of leopards and occasional tigers to fulfill that role already in the protected areas where African Cheetah will be introduced. So, the second claim that cheetahs in India will perform a critical ecological role as a top predator is also not supported by facts.

Besides, the plan to create a viable Metapopulation of African cheetah in India by introducing and establishing them in various protected areas of India suggested in the Cheetah Action plan seems more rhetoric than fact-based. The prevailing land uses outside Protected areas won’t allow that to happen. Maintaining a metapopulation of cheetahs in India will be impossible in India unless the genetic exchange between those isolated populations is maintained through periodical local translocations of cheetahs from one population to another by transporting cheetahs by road or air.  

V.B. Savarkar, renowned wildlife expert and former Director of wildlife Institute of India, has aptly summed it up:- The term ‘metapopulations’ seems to have been used to create an impression. The term is well defined and as such there cannot be such a landscape with source and sink populations of cheetahs in greater Kuno with more than 160 villages in the ‘buffer’. This is impossible even in the wildest dreams. The same holds true of other areas that have been mentioned. There is no science, substance, or reality in such statements. This is scary. I feel it could be useful to mention the extent of habitat essential with reference to the size of territories and home ranges for this species that naturally occurs in low densities. Such habitats need to be well stocked with populations of prey species and low levels of biotic disturbance”.

Reintroductions are capable of restoring ecosystems but introductions are risky and counterproductive.  The executive summary of IUCN Guidelines for Reintroductions and Other Conservation Translocations 2013 clearly states: 

Translocations of organisms outside of their indigenous range are considered to be an especially high risk given the numerous examples of species released outside their indigenous ranges subsequently becoming invasive, often with massively adverse impacts.

In the case of a carnivore, such drastic intervention would have been necessary only if there were no other indigenous species of predator capable of filling in the vacant niche and performing the lost ecological function. Fortunately, we have tigers, leopards, wild dogs, and wolves, foxes, hyenas capable of doing the job in most of the protected areas. Then what was the necessity to introduce a species that is genetically distinct and has evolved in entirely different ecological and climatic conditions?

There is a huge difference in climatic conditions in Namibia and Sheopur where Kuno National Park is located. While Namibia has less than 300 mm of annual rainfall mainly in the months between November and March, the Sheopur district of Madhya Pradesh experiences an average annual rainfall of around 750 mm and mainly in the month of June-August. The minimum temperature of Namibia is about 6 degrees Celsius in the month of July.  And Max temp goes around 31degrees Celsius in January. While in the Sheopur district the maximum temperature reaches 43 degrees Celsius in May and the average minimum temperature remains at 10 degrees Celsius in January. With these climatic dissimilarities, the imported cheetahs in Kuno. are likely to experience a lot of stress adjusting to the drastic variation in climatic conditions. 

I will therefore call Cheetah import to Kuno an arbitrary translocation or plain introduction of African cheetah outside its indigenous range where they have no exclusive ecological function to perform. Besides, the ecological role envisaged for cheetahs in the action plan might go haywire as together with the numerous leopards in the habitat, the rate of predation may exceed the rate of recruitment in prey populations. This will precipitate an alarming situation.

It would be of interest to know that arbitrary translocation, without an objective to conserve a species outside their indigenous range, wherever attempted in the past (long ago), resulted in myriad problems – overabundance and resultant depletion of the resources for indigenous spp., and disease to both local wild animals and human beings. (e.g.in 1859, European rabbits were introduced to Australia, for recreational hunting by the rich settlers, soon they proliferated and became an invasive species that required rabbit control measures. In in1872, the introduction of Indian mongoose into the Caribbean to control introduced rats destroyed poultry, and caused a rapid rise in incidences of rabies). In the case of the introduced African cheetah, the risk of disease is very high; it may affect either the introduced population or the indigenous population, or both.

It is also not correct to tell that cheetahs from Namibia are adapted to woodland hence they will be fine in Kuno; the fact is that 90 % of the cheetahs rescued in Namibia are from the farmlands. Cheetahs are animals of open country and they live in savannahs, extensive grasslands or deserts, or woodlands interspersed with huge natural grasslands. In those habitats, there is no dearth of prey. Most of the prey species occur in very large herds. In India, we have prey species that occur in very small groups. 

The third claim about the introduction of African cheetah will help restore the grassland ecosystem is also difficult to accept. I would like to point out that Kuno consists of semi-arid dry deciduous forests and thorn forests. The grasslands in Kuno are manmade. The extent of grassland created after the relocation of 24 villages is just about 300 hectares. The rest of the vacated village lands are under a thick cover of Ziziphus and Sorghum halepense. These grasslands are prone to convert to climax forests if they are not managed. 

Madhya Pradesh has lost most of its natural grassland ecosystems that exist outside the protected areas to encroachments, allocation of land by the government to poor sections of society for residence and farming, diversions for development works, and extreme biotic pressures. Most of such natural grasslands are included in the wasteland list and hence they are easily disposable. Some vestige of those grasslands can be seen in the West and Northwest Madhya Pradesh. Even those are unprotected, degraded, and misused.  

It is also important to note that only 3 % of India’s grasslands are within the protected area network and most of them are created by human intervention and need to be maintained through ameliorative management. I urge the authors of the Cheetah Action Plan to explain to the public how the introduced cheetahs in Kuno National Park or Nauradehi wildlife Division would save the Grasslands (Beeds) of Mandsaur, Jhabua, and Dhar. 

 So, the rhetoric that Cheetahs are going to restore our natural grassland ecosystems and associated fauna and flora is untenable. Indian species like caracal, wolf, and bustards that inhibit grassland ecosystems are no less charismatic than the cheetah but did we ever try to promote and protect them? I would urge the scientists involved in writing this project to kindly explain how introducing African cheetahs into a few protected areas with small anthropogenic grasslands would achieve restoration of the grassland ecosystems across the states. They should also explain why conserving the great Indian bustard, lesser florican, caracal, and wolf cannot achieve the revival of grasslands.

It is common knowledge that India has myriad conservation issues and an array of species that need immediate intervention to save them from extinction. Perhaps Wildlife conflict management and control of local, and international wildlife trade, and Ecodevelopment need enormous resources to be effective but we have no money for these critical activities. Conservation is turning into show business. I wonder why millions of rupees should be wasted on a non-native species on the pretext that such an initiative will save the grassland ecosystems. 

If the plan is to restore India’s grassland ecosystems the first step would be to clearly identify them across the nation, map them, take them away from the wasteland list and enact legislation to save those grassland ecosystems from encroachments, arbitrary diversion for various political reasons and development projects. Human development planning and implementation must include ecological safeguards.

Let us also ask ourselves what have we done so far for conserving indigenous endangered species in the country like the wolf, lesser florican, great Indian bustard (GIB), caracal, hispid hare, snow leopard, Gangetic dolphin, and several others. A major portion of the funds for wildlife conservation comes from the central government. Every year the allocation of funds to states gets curtailed. Recently the central budget for the conservation of wildlife was slashed by 47%.  Wildlife conservation is not the priority of the government. In this scenario can we afford the luxury of introducing a non-native species for which the selected habitat seems inadequate considering their long-term survival?

The Cheetah Action Plan hopes that a 3200 sq. km tract with 169 villages in the human-dominated Shivpuri-Sheopur landscape park is available outside 748 sq. km Kuno National Park as the extended habitat for freeranging cheetah. Is it a viable plan- what about the cheetah: human conflict, retaliatory killings, and poaching? 

In its judgment of 2020, the Supreme Court had agreed only for an experimental ‘introduction’ of African cheetah in suitable habitat, not for a full-fledged project in Kuno National Park. Kuno was completely ruled out for African Cheetah introduction by the Supreme Court in its earlier order of 2013. The court ordered that Lions from Gir must be relocated to Kuno within six months and that no exotic cheetah should be introduced in Kuno. I have not seen any other order of the court which says otherwise.

The media buzz around the transportation and release of African cheetah in Kuno has shaken the earth as if something of great conservation importance is happening in the country. Our Asiatic lion, for which Kuno was prepared painstakingly by us over several years of hard work involved the relocation and rehabilitation of about 1600 families from 24 villages inhabited by Saharia people, the first on this scale in the country or perhaps anywhere else in the world. I fear that perhaps Kuno will never receive lions from Gir as now with the Cheetah project already in place; one will have to wait for the next 15-20 years for it to conclude. I am also worried about the rumours making the rounds that the next step might be bringing in some lions and several ungulate spp. from Africa – if this happens that would be the saddest day for conservation and a betrayal of the sacrifices people have made for our parks and sanctuaries. 

Tourism for Cheetahs: A Word of Caution

Newspaper reports indicate the government’s eagerness to open Kuno to tourism and expose cheetahs to tourists in the next three months. That would be disastrous. Even after their release from the quarantine pens, these animals will be kept in a larger fenced area. Cheetahs are known to be very poor breeders in captivity. Besides, the stress caused by the presence of tourists and vehicles may further negatively impact their reproductive ability. One recent study in Bandhavgarh and Kanha tiger reserves confirms that disturbance causes the production of stress-induced glucocorticoids that interfere with the reproductive ability of the tigers.  The researchers concluded that “unbridled tourism associated with high anthropogenic disturbance can be related to perceived stress and consequently, may have an impact on the reproductive fitness of tigers and the long-term survival of isolated populations” (Abhinav Tyagi et al. 2019). Therefore, I would suggest that there should be no hurry to expose cheetahs to tourists for at least the next five years or till the F1 generation attains adulthood. Otherwise, the project may shrivel up before it takes root.

If the park management, in their over-enthusiasm or under pressure from various quarters chooses to launch tourism prematurely, they need to be cautious and conservative and must proceed after preparing a comprehensive tourism management plan containing a strong and easy-to-implement monitoring protocol that could take care of the likely adverse impacts on the introduced population as well as the park resources. 

I toiled for 2 years to understand what is happening with the tourism industry and people around our tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh. In my thesis, I have suggested ways to plan sustainable tourism that aims at improving the local economy by facilitating the utilization of the goods and services produced locally. The state government has to play the most critical role here as a facilitator. The detailed mechanism of how the government may become a catalyst is also explained. Just giving menial daily wage jobs to people does not improve the local economy, nor does it empower local people. 

The government must first declare the buffer area (surrounding areas outside Kuno national park) as special areas for conservation-oriented development and make rules to facilitate the participation of local communities residing there. This may include capacity building, and facilitation of loans for SMEs in improving dairy, poultry, food grains, local artefacts, handicrafts, etc. The government must also notify an elaborate legal framework to ensure that the local resorts and businesses first purchase the goods and services produced locally in the villages in the buffer zones. Training locals in the activities and enterprises they wish to involve themselves in will be critical.  In case resort owners are willing to enter into a tripartite agreement with villagers/Joint Forest management committees and the park management there should be legal provision for that, too. 

On a comprehensive scale, the state government may like to intervene to create a conducive framework for full-fledged involvement of the local people in tourism enterprise as tourism will certainly skyrocket for watching cheetahs in Kuno. This would be necessary to safeguard the interests of local people and stop any Illegal transactions of lands of the local tribes by non-tribal outsiders and the taking over of the entire local tourism enterprise by a handful of rich and powerful businessmen. There will also be a necessity to notify and enforce rules to regulate the use of groundwater, and stop misuse of firewood, installation of solar power, water-harvesting, and grey-water recycling systems. Banning wood-based boilers and use of firewood brought from forests by locals, and enforcing a no fence policy for resorts that have huge lands outside their complexes just on the fringe of the national park.  

Training of village youth as guides must start in right earnest. So that they are well versed in their critical job as nature interpreters and educators when tourism opens after a few years.

Traditionally Wild animals from foreign lands have been brought into another country only to keep them in zoos (ex-situ Conservation areas) not to let them range free in National parks and Sanctuaries (the in-situ Conservation areas). Now the translocation of African Cheetah in Kuno national park (an in-situ conservation area) has blurred the line between Ex-situ and Insitu conservation and also between reintroduction and introduction, challenging the age-old principles of conservation biology. The distinction between serious conservation efforts and popular soap operas and tourism promotion is also being obliterated. The world has changed for better or worse only time would tell. All the best to everyone.


Acknowledgment:

To my teacher V.B. Sawarkar for kindly reading my draft and his guidance and suggestions in the preparation of this article. To WII for writing the Cheetah Action Plan.

References

  • Abhinav Tyagi et al, Physiological stress responses of tigers due to anthropogenic disturbance especially tourism in two central Indian tiger reserves, downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/conphys/article-abstract/7/1/coz045/5531814 16 July 2019
  • Charruau, P.; Fernandes, C.; Orozco-Terwengel, P.; Peters, J.; Hunter, L.; Ziaie, H.; Jourabchian, A.; Jowkar, H.; Schaller, G.; Ostrowski, S. (2011). “Phylogeography, genetic structure and population divergence time of cheetahs in Africa and Asia: evidence for long-term geographic isolates isolates”. MolecularEcology. 20 (4):706724. doi:10.1111/j.1365294X.2010.04986.x. P MC 3531615. PMID 21214655
  • IUCN/SSC (2013). Guidelines for Reintroductions and Other Conservation Translocations. Version 1.0. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN Species Survival Commission, viiii + 57 pp
  • Stefan Prost, Ana Paula Machado, Julia Zumbroich, Lisa Preier, Sarita Mahtani­Williams, Rene Meissner, Katerina Guschanski, JaelleC. Brealey, Carlos Fernandes, Pa ul Vercammen, Luke T. B. Hunter, Alexei V. Abramov, Lena Godsall­Bottriell, Paul Bottriell, Desire Lee Dalton, Antoinette Kotze, Pamela Anna Burger. Conservation Genomic Analyses of African and Asiatic Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) Across Their Current and Historical Species Range doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.14.949081
  • Y.V. Jahla, et al, Cheetah Action Plan (With Emphasis on the First Release Site-Kuno National Park), Published by Wildlife Institute of India, NTCA and MPFD, ISBN: 81-85496-65-X2021,

The author, Suhas Kumar, who retired as Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, has spent almost 25 years managing, supervising, and guiding the management and training of officers and staff of national parks, sanctuaries, and tiger reserves of Madhya Pradesh. He is a trained wildlife manager, a law graduate, and holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Ecology discipline in the field of ecotourism in protected areas. He has also acquired some knowledge and training in nature interpretation and ecotourism from the US, the UK, and Australia. He is a member of WWF-India’s State Advisory Board for Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and the Governing Body and Governing Council of National Centre for Human Settlement and Environment, Bhopal. He is also a member of the Delhi Biodiversity Society. Earlier, he had served as the chairman of the Research Advisory Committee of the M.P. State Biodiversity Development Board and member of Madhya Pradesh State Board for Wildlife for two terms. He was the chairman of one of the evaluation teams constituted by NTCA in 2017-18 for 13 tiger reserves of the country.


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