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The Destiny of the Lions and The History of the Cheetas

Context

  • Beginning in August 2022, four male and four female African cheetahs will be imported from Namibia, and another 12 from South Africa. These cheetahs are intended for soft release in a compartmentalised enclosure (500 hectare) ready at Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh (carrying capacity of 21 cheetahs) to reintroduce the cheetah into its “historical range.”
  • Recently, the Union Minister for Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) launched the ‘Action Plan for Cheetah Introduction in India,’ under which 50 of these big cats will be introduced over the next five years with the assistance of the Wildlife Institute of India and the Wildlife Trust of India.

Relevance

GS Paper 3: Environment – Biodiversity and Conservation related issues.

Mains question

Project Tiger’s success may result in human-animal conflict if habitat conservation is not prioritised. Discuss (150 words)


Background

  • In May 2012, the Supreme Court halted plans to introduce foreign cheetahs into the Palpur Kino sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, citing the following reasons:
  • Cheetahs may clash with a concurrent and long-delayed project to reintroduce lions into the same sanctuary.
  • Whether African cheetahs would find the sanctuary to be a favourable environment in terms of prey abundance.
  • The Supreme Court finally lifted its seven-year-long stay to allow the introduction of African Cheetahs from Namibia into Indian habitat in 2021.

Several Facts

  • The cheetah is one of the most ancient of the big cat species, with ancestors dating back more than five million years to the Miocene epoch.
  • Namibia has the world’s largest cheetah population.
  • The cheetah is also the world’s fastest land mammal, living in Africa and Asia.
  • The Indian government declared the cheetah extinct in the country in 1952.
  • The cheetah is India’s only extinct large carnivore, primarily due to hunting and habitat loss.
  • The Asiatic cheetah is a critically endangered species that only exists in Iran, and the African cheetah is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Milestones to aim for

  • Short-term goal: If all goes well, the cheetah population within Kuno should reach its limit of 21 in about 15 years.
  • Long-term vision: Once the greater Kuno landscape has been secured and restored, the largest population is expected to increase to 36 cheetahs within 30-40 years.
  • Small cheetah reserves: Several smaller cheetah reserves will be established in Rajasthan and elsewhere in MP during this time period.
  • New supply: A fresh supply of cheetahs will be available from Africa for at least five years and possibly up to ten years.

Introduction method

  • Phased releases: Once the cheetahs arrive in Kuno, the plan is to separate male coalitions (groups) and individual females into separate but adjoining compartments “so that they can get to know each other” before releasing them.
  • Cold release strategy: Cheetahs would be kept in an enclosure called a boma, and prey would be released into the enclosure for the cheetahs to catch. This will allow the animals to become accustomed to hunting Indian prey species before being released.
  • Tracking: Radio-collared male coalitions will be released first, followed by females 1-4 weeks later, depending on how the males settle into their new environment.
  • Unsuitable habitat: If any animal gets into an unsuitable environment, it will be returned.
  • Avoiding man-animal conflict: If necessary, the hard boundaries of Kuno National Park adjacent to human habitation will be secured through proper fencing, at least in the early years.

Concerns Regarding the Cheetah Introduction Project

  • Remote patches: According to the project’s Population Viability Analysis, populations with more than 50 cheetahs have a “high probability of long-term cheetah persistence.”
  • As a result, establishing and maintaining a few small “island populations” is not the same as the popular notion of reintroducing the cheetah that once roamed free in the Indian wild.
  • Interconnectedness: The most difficult conservation challenge in India is maintaining habitat connectivity that allows meta-populations to be self-sufficient (genetically viable) in order to perform their ecological roles.
  • Human intervention: A model that relies on human intervention to survive effectively reduces protected areas to glorified open zoos.
  • Exotic species: Under the umbrella conservation approach, multiple species in a forest (for example, a tiger reserve) are protected in the name of a flagship species (i.e. tiger).
    • However, no justification has been provided as to why an exotic replacement for an extinct species must be introduced in order to save indigenous species.
  • Inter-species conflict: The cheetah project also promises to benefit endangered grassland species like the Indian wolf and the nearly extinct great Indian bustard (GIB). This approach, however, contains the following contradictions:
  • Wolves, for example, are a keystone species in the Nauradehi sanctuary (MP), and they would have to compete with cheetahs.
    • The majestic GIB is a possible prey item for the cheetah. The project excluded Jaisalmer’s Desert National Park because “putting the cheetah in with the bustard cannot be contemplated at all, because of the threat to the most gravely endangered bird.”
  • Misplaced conservation priorities: The decision to introduce cheetahs rather than lions into Kuno National Park reflects India’s distorted conservation priorities, rather than competing interests of two wild species.
    • Conservationists warn that India’s conservation priority should be saving what can still be saved, and that the desire to relive the cheetah’s past should not jeopardise the lion’s future.
  • Wilful Contempt: Many conservationists are outraged by what they call “wilful contempt of the Supreme Court,” which set a six-month deadline for relocating lions to Kuno National Park in April 2013.
    • The Gujarat government has been accused of refusing to share lions even after the Supreme Court dismissed its review and curative petitions.

The way forward

  • In the host country, a detailed analysis of the animals’ lineage and condition should be performed to ensure that they are not from an excessively inbred stock and are in the ideal age group to conform to the needs of a founding population.
  • According to experts, any experiment to increase wild population must have compelling conservation imperatives, such as creating a backup stock of Asiatic lions, which have long been isolated in Gir national park, where epidemics or natural calamities could send them the way of the cheetah.

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September 2022
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