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Introducing non-native cheetahs is 'not equivalent' to restoring pride in the nation

By Bappaditya Mukhopadhyay* 

The Cheetahs from the African continent has finally been introduced to India by the Indian Prime Minister on his 72nd birthday. The process had started with the previous Government in 2009. However, the Supreme Court clearance was pending owing to the objection by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) plea to reintroduce cheetahs.
Finally the clearance was obtained in January 2020 and thereafter Kuno National Park (KNP) was chosen for the reintroduction of first set of Southeast African Cheetahs. In the near future, depending upon the success story of the current reintroduction, more cheetahs from South Africa may also be introduced.
This exercise has generated a lot of interest among various stakeholders with opinions on both sides galore. It is important to pose some questions that surround the whole exercise. Let us evaluate some of these arguments.
The first set of arguments are quite detached from the issues of conservation as they mostly deal with either commercial returns or are seen as a matter of pride for a nation. The second set of arguments explore our competency to pull off such an ecological challenge. There are many more, but let us start with these few.
Perhaps the strongest and most popular voice in support of the exercise is its equivalence of bringing back Kohinoor. Although there were a few Asiatic (Indian) Cheetahs who were roaming free during the beginning of 20th century, they were officially declared extinct in 1952.
Therefore, it is natural to believe that, for a species that got extinct less than 70 years ago, reintroduction to the wild would certainly be ethical, easier as well as more acceptable from the viewpoint of ecological conservationism.
However, are we reintroducing the same sub-species? There is now scientific evidence to suggest that the Asiatic cheetah (acinonyx jubatus venaticus) is distinct from its African counterpart ( acinonyx jubatus jubatus). Therefore, to take pride in “getting back lost glory” is as misplaced as settling for “Cullinan diamond” in place of Kohinoor!
Another prominent argument put forward in favour of the exercise is its impact on tourism. Undeniably, in India, wildlife tourism has exhibited an impressive (15% growth) over the years with over 70% of them being Indians. Further, 71% of them undertake such tourism if there is a chance of seeing a tiger in the wild.
Without doubt there will a lot of tourist attraction for Cheetah safari and it may well exceed the per Cheetah tourist revenue as compared to any other big cats. But perhaps tourism around any big cat will do as well after we net out the costs.
The leopard safari at Jhalana earned over Rs 5 million between December 23-29, 2021 in a small 20 sq km reserve forest. Thus the issue is not whether KNP will earn tourist revenue, will it compensate the revenue loss because a sizeable conservation fund will now be diverted away from parks that host tigers, lions and leopards?
Indeed it is baffling as to why a country that has such diverse native wildlife and an enormous unmet tourist demand (often there is a more than three months waiting time to book safaris at parks with decent tiger sightings), needs to import non-native wildlife to boost wildlife tourism. Strangely it appears a complete anti thesis to our nationalistic sentiments- diver funds for the natives to the non natives!
However, the above concerns fade in comparison to the possible disaster that can happen on the conservation and ecological front if we fail to anticipate some challenges.
Without doubt our track record in conservation of native wildlife has been quite successful and something that has lessons for others. Indeed, for long, the only haven and the future for tigers is India. However, does that make us experts to generate a healthy self-sustaining population of cheetahs here? I am afraid the answer is negative.
The challenge is not so much as prey base -- one can ensure somewhat steady supply of them (although that itself may come under scrutiny as we are violating various wildlife protection Acts as well as ethical codes of conservationism by introducing alien species to prey on native species); the challenge is grassland. Cheetahs will need vast plains of grasslands with very few trees that block their vision, vegetation. Or undulation that can impeded their speed.
Unlike tigers or lions, they are not stealth hunters, sneaking up to within a few feet from their prey. They need vast open plain to spot the prey, hide in the tall grasses and shrubs to get close and then chase over a large patch of land. Therefore, this also means, these plains need tall grasses for them to hide.
A quick comparison of the Google Earth image of the cheetah habitat in Namibia and the proposed habitat in KNP establishes a stark difference. As of now, KNP landscape looks very similar to most forest plains of India -- too many trees that will block the sight of vision.
To convert this forest to sustain a critical population of cheetahs, too many trees must be perhaps felled. Is the exercise desirable? It is odd that for introduction and conservation of a species, we remove natural vegetation.
Apart from “preparing the habitat” in controversial ways, many experts have already predicted the problems the cheetahs will face from feral dogs and the occasional tigers and leopards straying into the area (South Africa has refused to send their cheetahs as long as leopards are not removed from KNP).
What about human-cheetah interactions and conservation? Most successful conservation models in India are not imported from outside but rely on the local expertise and involvement. Our success stories around has come from our long history of human-wildlife coexistence.
For example, in the Indian part of Sundarbans, the place sees the highest number of tiger attacks and yet sees no retaliation because conservation efforts depend upon the knowledge shared by the locals. Given that none of the current communities in India has ever shared their habitat with cheetahs, how will the conservation effort work?
To take pride in getting back lost glory is as misplaced as settling for Cullinan diamond in place of Kohinoor
One can agree that there may be negligible human-cheetah conflict, but one cannot rule out Cheetah livestock conflicts. Does this mean we will now displace a lot many villages from the nearby areas of KNP than we would if we were to convert KNP for other wildlife conservation? The economic costs of such resettlement are not negligible.
However, there is one scenario where, despite the above criticisms, the exercise deserves a lot of support if it means reviving or saving a species that is facing certain extinction.
This is what ecologists term as managed relocation (MR), also known as assisted colonization or assisted migration.
This conservation strategy is increasingly being proposed in anticipation of range shifts forced by climate change especially for species that are restricted to a specific location. Climate related shock may simply hasten the process of extinction by wildfire, floods etc. Although this is one of the more controversial proposals to emerge in the ecological community in recent years, it is in this context that India can play an extremely role by being the perfect destination for MR. 
However, the signals India has sent so far are confusing. It was ideal to start the process with relocation of Asiatic lions from Gir, as they satisfy all conditions that may require MR intervention.
Given that we have reasonable experience with conserving them, the relocation exercise would have been an ideal setup for us to learn the process. It seems rather odd that KNP which was the original proposed site for lion relocation will now host cheetahs!
Further, reports suggest that India could not get the Asiatic cheetahs from Iran partly because we refused to relocate a few Asiatic lions in return. Thus, while MR may seem a plausible reason for undertaking the exercise, there is very little credible signal we have emitted that shows our commitment to the cause.
It appears we will have to expend a lot of resource to maintain a healthy sustainable population of cheetahs in KNP. This is particularly disturbing as almost every week there are fresh road kills involving protected species in India. This is because, citing lack of resources, we blatantly renege on our commitments.
For example, while the Kanha-Pench forest corridor should have 11.81 kms long under passes to let the wildlife have a safe passage, the National Highways Authority of India (NHA) overlooked the rules and constructed only 4.41 km long underpasses compromising their dimensions.
Similarly in NH6, only 2.95 km of mitigation work was done against a schedule 8 kms length. This is completely violating the Wildlife (Protection) act 1973 while constructing a road patch on NH46 ( Hoshangabad -Betul) through a functional tiger corridor connecting Melghat and Satpura tiger reserves. Surprisingly, most of these violations are in MP, the state for cheetah relocation
It is important at this stage that instead of inventing new justifications to support the project, we identify one or two objectives. This will help us plan resources better. We must also be prepared to carefully lay out a ‘termination plan’ -- a plan that suggests when to no longer continue with the project. 
We will be reneging our commitment to conservation if we continue to waste precious resources towards a project, only because we attached national pride to it.
---
*Professor at Great Lakes Institute of Management, Gurgaon; his research interests are in the area of Data Analytics and Public Policy

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