Reintroducing the cheetah will save our grasslands
The article has been authored by Prashanto Sen, senior advocate who argued in the Supreme Court for the relocation of the cheetah
The legendary speed of the cheetah or the hunting leopard can be maintained only for a short distance. In his Mammals of India T C Jordan (1874) mentions that a well-mounted horseman can come up with a hunting leopard after a comparatively short run. When caught up with the cheetah generally permits itself to be speared without any resistance. The ease of it being hunted is perhaps one of the reasons for its extinction. It is the only large mammalian species to become extinct since Independence. (Excluding the Javan and Sumatran rhinoceroses, which in any case had a peripheral existence in the eastern extremity of the country--M.K. RanjitSinh and Jhala, 2010) The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) decided around 2009 to reintroduce cheetahs in India.
The reintroduction of a species is a relatively new concept. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) defines it as an attempt to establish species in an area which was once part of its historical range but from which it has become extinct. The object of relocation is to establish a keystone species which would then maintain /restore the natural biodiversity to provide long-erm economic benefits. In India the strategy worked when tigers were reintroduced into Panna and Sariska.
The reason for choosing cheetah was the conservation benefits. It is a grassland-based species. Grasslands have reduced drastically in India. Grassland based fauna have declined. In saving the cheetah other species which are grassland based and endangered are also saved. These would include the Indian wolf, the caracal and three endangered species of the bustard family- the Houbara, the lesser Florican, and the most endangered of all the Great Indian Bustard. Such an effort also contributes to the genetic diversity of the species.
The MoEF wanted to reintroduce cheetahs in Kuno, Madhya Pradesh, which, along with other areas, was occupied by the cheetah in historic times. Irfan Habib the eminent historian in his economic and political history of the Mughal Empire depicted large areas in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Central India and Uttar Pradesh as the grounds where the cheetah was hunted or captured. However, the reintroduction was complicated by the fact that the cheetahs survive in similar habitats as the lion.
Around this time there was also a a push for lions to be introduced in Kuno. There was opposition to the cheetah proposal on the ground that the lion should be considered first. The matter was before the Supreme Court (SC) which refused to give permission for the cheetahs. The top priority for the court then was getting a second home to protect the Asiatic Lion, an endangered species. At this stage for the MoEF to introduce cheetahs first in Kuno and then the lion was held to be arbitrary. The decision was quashed.
Subsequently an attempt was made to persuade authorities to accept Cheetahs being offered by South Africa. The attempt was made in sites other than Kuno because of the SC order. However, there was resistance by the authorities who preferred the safety of treating the SC order as a blanket ban rather than a ban limited to Kuno. The SC had to be petitioned.
When the matter came up the controversy of introduction of the lion to Kuno had died down. The Court was informed that the proposed reintroduction of cheetahs was as per the guidelines of IUCN. In its earlier order it had been overlooked that the guidelines to be referred to were the 1998 IUCN guidelines which envisaged reintroduction. The court had in 2012 been shown the guidelines of 1987 by mistake which did not provide for reintroduction.
The possibility of reintroduction was considered because of the similarity between the Asiatic and the African cheetah. Because of a genetic bottleneck in the geological time scale (late Pleistocene between 25,88,000 to 11,700 years ago), the sub species of Cheetahs are like identical twins. There was therefore very little difference between the Asiatic cheetah and the African cheetah. The Iranian cheetah is genetically closest to the Indian cheetah, which went extinct. However, since the number of cheetahs in Iran was very small they would be genetically depauperate, or imperfectly developed.
The above arguments lay embedded in pleadings before the SC where the matter was pending for three years. The case came up again on 28.1.2020. It was a cold and sunny January morning. One had almost dozed off in the well heated hall of Court No.1, under the disapproving glare of the stalwarts whose portraits hung in the hall. The matter was called out and the court expressed its inclination to hear the arguments in detail. It was one of those unforgettable moments where a case having a huge impact gets taken up when least expected, after a long wait. There is a bit of a lull till you realise that the time for voicing what one has been preparing for so long has arrived. The adrenaline kicks in and uplifts the spirits. The post-lunch drowsiness is rudely shaken off as one launches into an argument.
While considering the application the Court made an important distinction. The species being introduced was the African cheetah which had actually never existed in India. It was not a re- introduction. It was a relocation. It was a tightly composed five-page order. With that order India was ready to welcome the African cheetah.
Through centuries, the genius of India has been its catholicity, and its ability to syncretise, influences from outside. The cheetah being relocated is a kind of syncretisation. It is a species which has never been to India. Yet, its very introduction will enable India ‘if not wholly but in some measure’ revive its magnificent grasslands. In an increasingly polarised world there are healing confluences. This one has an element of magnificence about it. It also comes from South Africa a country with which we share deep bonds forged among others, by Mahatma Gandhi.