Cheetahs in India: A new book connects the dots
When the cheetah vanished, little was left of its story. Writer Divyabhanusinh unearths clues from art and lore, Ancient Egypt and Mughal India.
It was a powerful predator with a thick coat, muscled body, short neck and powerful legs. Look at old photographs and it starts to make sense that Indian royals wanted cheetah as pets, and hunting partners.
Partly as a result of these animals being taken from the wild, partly because of how they were later hunted by the British as trophies, and partly because of their high cub-mortality rates and the destruction of their habitats, the Asiatic cheetah went extinct across the Indian subcontinent (it was last sighted in India in 1975 and in Pakistan in 1997).
For all its beauty, and the legends built around it, when it disappeared, it left little behind beyond the art and folk tales. “This animal was not widely coveted as game - as the tiger and lion were. So its life and habits were not studied in the wild. There was very little information available on it,” says author and naturalist Divyabhanusinh, 82.
This is partly what fascinated him, in his early years in the field. So he spent a decade researching the animal, looking for clues. He found some, in works of art and in legends, in records and stories, from a range of cultures — Egyptian, Iranian, Indian and more. The result was The End of a Trail: The Cheetah in India (1995).
The seminal book has now been revised and republished as The Story of India’s Cheetahs (The Marg Foundation; March). The re-release coincides with the introduction of the African cheetah to India. What does he make of that effort, given that six of the 20 cheetahs brought over since September 2022 have died?
There have been allegations of a lack of transparency, uneven standards of care, and mismanagement of the project. “There may have been some setbacks, but that project is, without question, ecologically significant,” Divyabhanusinh says. “Tiger, lion and rhinoceros reserves have helped protect ecosystems. They are among the few things that have proved effective, when it comes to keeping land, rivers and forests untouched. The cheetah, an animal of the grasslands, scrublands and semi-deserts, could help preserve these under-threat ecosystems in India.”
It will take time, he adds. “It took decades to see numbers rise with lions and tigers.” For now, here are some highlights from his book on the millennia-long history of the Asiatic cheetah in India.
Walk with an Egyptian: Cats abound in art from Ancient Egypt. But look closely and one sees what was likely a cheetah too. A carving in a tomb in Thebes, crafted in about 1700 BCE, shows a man walking a cheetah on a leash, “carrying a log of very precious black wood resembling ebony”. Other illustrations depict collared cheetahs being offered as tribute to kings, including Thutmose I, who ruled circa 1500 BCE.
The entourage: By the 1st century CE, contemporary chroniclers such as the Greek scholar Strabo were recording the presence of cheetahs in royal processions in India. Strabo writes of a cheetah in parade that was held in honour of a king (possibly a Kushan or a Shaka). Buffalo and lions were in the procession too, he noted.
On the hunt: Indians were coursing or hunting with the cheetah by at least the 12th century CE. The Manasollasa, a Sanskrit text by the Chalukya king Someshvara III, describes such a hunt. Control a cheetah with ropes and nets; take it around town; test it with an injured antelope; put the trained cheetah in a cart; release the animal into a group of black antelope, in a region of the forest with open spaces… the instructional text reads. The Pardhi tribe (from present-day Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh) hunted for subsistence and also tamed cheetahs as hunting companions too, in a tradition that continued until the early 1900s.
Hunted for sport: The British viewed the cheetah as a hunting trophy, along with lions, tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses, buffaloes and bison. “When the British began spearing them from horseback for sport, some Indian princes began doing this too,” Divyabhanusinh says. Meanwhile, as forests were erased for settlements, railway lines and plantations, this added to the strain on the species.
The last Asiatic cheetah seen in the wild in India was sighted in Hazaribagh, in present-day Jharkhand, in 1975. There were a few sightings in Balochistan, Pakistan, in 1997. The cheetah lives on in the wild in Iran, but is gone from the forests of the subcontinent.