It’s a familiar scene: A Mughal ruler out for shikar in the lush jungle. His retinue of foot soldiers, horsemen and trackers atop carriages at the edge of the frame. Towards the centre, a frenzy grips the scene. The leaping coursers—spotted, bright yellow, hound-like quadrupeds—are scattering a herd of blackbuck at the silvery pond. In one corner, one of these swift hunters seems to have grabbed a blackbuck by the throat.
No lesser animal in the forest can outrun the hunting leopard, as the cheetah was formerly known in India. Scenes of hunts such as these—or those of cheetahs bonding with their keepers, as royal escorts decked in finery, stalking quarry alongside caracals, being trapped and caged for training—abound in Rajasthani and Mughal art. Until they became extinct at the dawn of Indian Independence when the Maharaja of Surguja shot the three last surviving cheetahs in India, these animals were a regular fixture in jungle lore. Mughal rulers’ fondness for them was well known; Akbar is said to have pioneered and institutionalised training cheetahs to aid in hunting, besides maintaining around 9,000 of these animals as personal pets.
After decades of anticipation and deliberation, cheetahs might soon start darting across the length and breadth of the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Madhya Pradesh. If all goes according to plan, 10 to 15 of these animals—males and females—will be translocated from Namibia later this year. Kuno, a 748-sq-km stretch, lies on the state’s border with Rajasthan, straddling a forest belt known as Sheopur-Shivpuri. After a month of enclosure protection, the collared cheetahs will be released into the wild.
Not long after cheetahs were reported extinct in the country, the Indian government began deliberations on their reintroduction into the wild, starting with a round of negotiations with Iranian authorities. However, the exchange fell through and was never revived. Finally, in 2009, talks of translocating the African subspecies from Namibia started. Despite understandable excitement about the charismatic animal “returning” to Indian shores, wildlife experts and conservationists have constantly raised red flags about the project’s success and viability.
Read the full feature in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India March-April 2022.
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.