(This article is being republished from The Quint's archives in the light of the African Cheetahs being transported to India on 17 September 2022. It was first published on 10 August 2022.)
The fastest animal on land is about to set foot on the Indian sub-continent, their arrival date expected to be around August 13, just before India's 75th Independence Day. Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh is being given a facelift in preparation for its new guests, the African Cheetah. Senior officers from Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, the Environment Ministry and scientists are in a last minute huddle to ensure nothing goes wrong when the big cats arrive.
This exercise is part of the Cheetah translocation project, an attempt to reintroduce the big cat to our wild, arrived at after an MOU was signed between India and Namibia earlier this year.
It's not easy reaching here, but after 18 hours and 600 kilometers on the road, my crew and I reach Kuno. A 5 sq km massive ‘soft release enclosure’ created within the national park will be their new home.
Even if its being called a soft release , the habitat within these enclosures has to be managed , so while it's moving in day for the cheetahs its moving day out for the Leopards. On the dinner menu for the cheetahs is cheetal, that’s brought in from other parts of MP.
The absence of a prey base was a big concern and that’s why spotted deer were brought in, as many as 200 from Pench Tiger Reserve.
Is the Cheetal Translocation Project Viable?
High-speed cameras and state of the art wildlife technologies, there is an army of people that have been at work here to ensure a smooth translocation. And yet there are the sceptics who argue, what is the scientific value of this project?
Wildlife biologist Ravi Chellam has spent a lifetime working on big cats. He was one of the first to question the sustainability and validity of the translocation.
"Such level of investment is not done for any such project. To be investing in an African animal and not on the Great Indian Bustard or the caracal or any other denizens of our grasslands, or even the habitat itself. Don’t forget grasslands continues to be categorised as wasteland."Ravi Chellam, Wildlife Biologist
"So a bunch of African cheetahs coming in, that too on a 15-50 year time scale is not going to resolve anything. Even if the project succeeds it will end up being a nothing more than a glorified Safari Park," he adds.
Kuno Was Originally Meant to House Asiatic Lions
Work on restoring Kuno began 18 years ago, but not for the cheetah, rather for another endangered big cat, the Asiatic Lion. With only a handful left in Gujarat, a second home would have helped the conservation of the species. However, the Asiatic Lion never made it to Kuno.
The state government of Gujarat has refused to hand over any lions inspite of a Supreme Court order. The argument given was that the Kuno habitat was not safe for the lions.
"Kuno was prepared for the lions and we are taking that land away from them and giving it to the African Cheetahs. And that indeed is a tragedy," says Chellam.
However, conservation giant Dr MK Ranjitsinh doesn’t agree that lions and cheetahs should be juxtaposed against each other. He has been the most ardent supporter of the cheetahs coming to India.
"The Cheetah is coming today, but the lion can also come. There is nothing to prevent that. After all they have all existed together in the historic past. To my mind the introduction of the cheetah is the beginning of a long struggle to get the cheetah back. It takes years for the cheetah to disappear, give it at least a decade to make its come back."Dr MK Ranjitsinh, Wildlife Conservationist
"The project doesn’t envisage keeping them in enclosures, only in the initial stage. They will be released in the wild it isn’t a safari park syndrome as is being said," he adds.
What Do the Relocated Tribal Communities Feel About the Cheetahs?
We visited the Sahariyas, a tribal community whose lives were intricately tied once to the forest. 18 years ago this village hamlet was once found inside the park. Indian laws do not allow people to be forcibly evicted from the forest. A comprehensive package was prepared by the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department to ensure the relocation was handled sensitively. The people were given land and some money to build their homes.
"I was given 35 thousand rupees and some land. But the land was not fertile. Now I go work as a daily wage worker to make both ends meet," says Atpal, a resident of this village.
They say it takes the flutter of a butterfly to send a hurricane across the world. In this case the flutter of the wings of the aircraft carrying the African cheetah some believe will start a new chapter for Indian wildlife conservation. As scientists question the validity of this expensive translocation, what cannot be denied is that the world’s attention today is on Kuno.
Oddly its taken a big cat from Africa to revive this forgotten part of India.
(Bahar Dutt is an award-winning journalist and a conservation biologist.)