PM Modi & Cheetahs: A Blog From Ground Zero Uncovering India’s Call to the Wild
Some say the biggest conservation story will play out in Kuno, to rest it won't be more than a glorified Safari Park
(This is a reporter's diary entry- style blog from her visit to Kuno in August, 2022.)
Kuno is looking resplendent in the monsoon rains. A swarm of common grass yellow butterflies rise from the wet mud and fall like confetti as we make our way through the thick grass.
Just a month from now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will arrive at the wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh to welcome the African cheetahs for which the park is about to be getting sealed from his security team. It's been an exhausting two days getting here but the park is glorious.
Big Cats To Stagger Tourism?
Some say the biggest conservation story will play out in Kuno once the Cheetahs arrive from Africa. Others say it wont be more than a glorified safari park. I set out from Delhi in August to document what kind of preparations are on, what is the mood of the forest officials and scientists overseeing this mammoth task and how do the communities who were first moved out of the National park, feel about this jamboree.
Driving nearly twelve hours on the road, we just about managed to reach the outskirts of the nearest town. We still have a couple of hours to reach the gates of the national park but tiredness kicks in. So, we decide to halt here for the night.
Since Kuno is still not on the wildlife tourism map, there are virtually no resorts offering ‘breakfast in the bush’ or selling monogrammed T-shirts of the cheetah to trigger happy droves of tourists, yet.
Mission Cheetah Gets Meek Media Response
There is one resort that is hosting local tourists from Gwalior when we arrive late evening. There’s loud music by the poolside and a ‘rainforest shower’ in which pot-bellied men in their underwear are dancing with beer bottles. They seem oblivious to the fact that African Cheetahs are about to arrive here.
I sneak into my room quietely, mildy distracted by the boisterous party going on close by. I am, after all, on ‘Mission Cheetah'
In spite of all the buzz and excitement, there is no one here to report on this big story. While there have been some visits from the regional press in Bhopal, it is indeed surprising to hear that no one from the national media has arrived here. Back in Delhi , WhatsApp groups, Facebook chats were buzzing with arguments and counter arguments , some hailing this as a big achievement, most, however, think it is a disaster in the making.
As I sit in the dimmed light of the resort , with moths circling around the lone light bulb, taking my notes, rushing to a corner where there is mobile connectivity, I manage to get through to one forest officer. I am told I can visit the park but only till a certain point. It's good enough for me.
Late into the night while planning my visit to the national park for the next day, I get momentarily distracted by a crash sound. The phone rings and the manager of the resort informs me that one of the party revelers didn’t see my car in the parking lot and reversed right into it.
I want to stay focused on my story and the mission I am on, but suddenly in rural Madhya Pradesh, in the dark of the night, I am arguing with random strangers. The rear light of my car is broken and there's a dent. ( I would have gone into the details of perils of arguing with drunk men at night but maybe that’s another story.)
The cops arrive to try and settle the matter. I am deeply aware of the fact that a lone woman arguing with eight men in a dark parking lot can invite unwanted danger. Suffice to say, the argument continues late into the night. Finally for the sake of staying focused on my story, I let the chap go with an apology.
Full-Blown Arrangements To Receive Wild Guests
Next morning, at dawn's first light, as I hear the gushing sound of the river and the raucous chorus of birds, my nerves are calmer and the joy of heading to the forest wipes out the memories of last night's ruckus.
Another fifty kms and we are finally in the park where we are at ground zero. We spot tall enclosures where the cheetahs will be kept and watch towers stationed in every two kms that will help the Forest Department monitor the precious cats.
A nilgai dashes through the trees, we see a few spotted deer, and a lone jackal. Spotted Deer have been brought in from other national parks to supplement the prey base here for the big cats. Scientists have raised many questions about whether the cheetahs will be able to hunt these animals given that neither one of these species are found in Africa.
I file my video story, we manage to climb on the watch towers. While the forest officials have been helpful, no one wants to speak to us on camera. “You must understand the sensitivities involved,“ says one senior officer “All I can say is, Kuno is ready for the cheetahs,” and turns back to his team.
Project Cheetah Masks Restoration of Lions
Back in Delhi I am told the Congress party wanting to take full credit for the Cheetah Project claims that the entire plan was initiated by them . The BJP claims they are the ones who are finally making this happen. In the process, what seems to have been forgotten is that Kuno National Park was prepared as a second home for the Asiatic Lion. If any political party wants to take credit for making Project Cheetah happen, it must be ready to take the brickbats for forgetting the Asiatic lion in the process.
The next day, I make it to the village of a local Sahariya tribe to know how do the original denizens of Kuno feel about the arrival of the Cheetahs. I meet Atpal, a middle aged man who was born inside the national park and was given financial compensation from the government to move out in addition to farm land.
He looks at me puzzled and asks, “We were told that we had to leave our homes for the lions. When did they decide to get cheetahs?” Meanwhile I receive a message -- The Forest Department has started nationwide quizzes to make children aware of the arrival of the cheetahs.
(The author is a conservation biologist and award winning environment journalist. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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