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.
Quoting from the Supreme Court order of January 2020, wildlife biologist and conservation scientist Ravi Chellam cautions against using the term “reintroduction” because it’s not a return of the Asiatic species (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) that thrived here, but a different subspecies (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus). Currently, the Asiatic cheetah is found only in Iran, with a population of under 50. Their numbers in Africa amount to around 7,000, but their status continues to be largely vulnerable.
Being fragile animals blessed only with the gift of speed to defend themselves, cheetahs have thrived in coexistence with larger predators in the African savannah thanks to the sheer expanse of the habitat and a cleaner demarcation of prey pools—a large chunk of their diet comes from other animals renowned for their speed, such as springboks, impalas, gazelles, oryxes and even game birds. They chase their prey across terrain and vegetation that complement their movement and speed, often hunting during the day to avoid confrontation with other predators.
In a new habitat belt where relatively bare swathes of land might not be available, these smaller cats are in danger of being wiped out. A major concern is the earmarking of this reserve for the translocation of another apex predator—the Asiatic lion. Proposals by scientists to introduce the endangered species beyond Gir National Park, their only existing habitat in India, have been floated multiple times.
However, now, with the cheetahs expected, the translocation of Asiatic lions has already taken a backseat and now stands in threat of being abandoned altogether. Even if it takes place in the distant future, it is bound to end up pitting the animals against each other in an alien environment. The cheetah, in fact, would then have to contend with three other apex predators in the same habitat—lions, leopards and tigers.
The recently launched ‘Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India’ suggests that the introduction of the animals will help revive India’s own grassland habitats that have seen neglect for decades. However, this contention has been met with disagreement on several counts. Dr Chellam quashes the claim, saying, “If you really want to restore, revive, protect that habitat, you will invest directly in that habitat. Secondly, the grasslands are still designated as wastelands in India. If we’re serious about conservation, should we allow that wasteland designation to persist?”
The other point of disagreement is that India boasts a wide variety of grasslands and only one animal cannot be representative of it. “Ranging from the arid grasslands of Rajasthan and Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, to semi-arid areas of central India, moist grasslands such as Kaziranga and other grasslands found in the Himalayas, the Shola forests and coastal areas—cheetahs can’t be representative of these diverse habitats. There’s no dearth of charismatic animals that warrant conservation in these areas,” insists Chellam, CEO, Metastring Foundation and Member, Biodiversity Collaborative.
On the IUCN list of vulnerable species, cheetahs need to navigate yet another hurdle to establish numbers in any habitat. Unlike during Mughal rule, when they were recorded to have been prolific breeders, reproduction rates in the recent past have gone down, and even in their existing sub-Saharan home, only 10-15 percent of cubs make it to adulthood. Conservation biologist Laurie Marker (Cheetah Conservation Fund), is hopeful that cub mortality rate cannot fall much beyond the existing numbers. But in a new home, survival and multiplication are going to be a challenge.
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India 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.