India is home to a huge diversity of wildcat species; in fact, it has the highest diversity of wildcats in any country in the world. The entire continent of Africa is home to 10 species of wildcats. The 15 species that can be found in India are:
Now Cheetah will be the 16th species should it manage to establish itself in the wild. Amongst much pomp and media coverage, the Cheetah was re-introduced on 17th September 2022 – a date selected to align with our Prime Minister – Mr. Narendra Modi’s birthday. Eight (8) cheetahs have been brought to India from Namibia and South Africa and are re-introduced into an enclosed area within Kuno Palpur National Park.
The arrival of the Cheetah has been a subject of much debate.
What is the debate about?
Most part of the debate revolves around whether the government should have done so or not – this in itself is a discussion that will lead nowhere as it is already done. However, some arguments that are made are:
Should the government have spent such incredible amounts of money bringing in a species that was already extinct when this country is blessed with such a huge diversity of wildlife that today is threatened due to loss of habitat and the ever-expanding human footprint?
Is the habitat selected for these cats ideal for them? There are those who believe that it is not.
Will it really boost tourism, and provide support to local communities, or was this done more to satisfy the passion of a few and to give them some additional PR points to boost their image of contribution towards the greater good?
Can the cheetah really adapt and survive? After all, it is a fragile predator that does not easily breed along with a high mortality rate in infants due to other predators – this is true even in Africa so we should not expect anything different here in India.
Can the cat adapt to a different prey base?
How successful are wildlife relocation projects for wild cats in India?
But all the above arguments today are pointless as we are at a point of no return and these feline beauties have already reached their destination. These cats are currently housed in an enclosure in the heart of Kuno Palpur National Park.
Let us first understand why this is done and why can’t they just be released into the wild with radio collars:
All cats have homing instincts, and they are inclined to walk back home to where they came from. By keeping them in their holding facilities for a month or two we can break this instinctive cycle, and this becomes their new homing center. After they are adjusted, they can be released into the wild.
This is also where these animals can be monitored and observed for any disease of concern.
The enclosed area has prey and without competing with other predators they can learn to target new prey species. The species that would become a cheetah’s prey base in India would be Chinkara (Indian gazelle), Chausingha (four-horned antelope), Chital deer (axis deer), and the Sambar on rare occasions. In Africa, their main prey base is the Thompson’s gazelle similar to the Chinkara. However, do we have a large enough population of Chausingha and Chinkara in the region? Or will they have to survive on Chital which does come in good numbers in Kuno. In the last few days, videos have circulated where one can see 3 cheetahs struggling to bring down Chital.
Challenges we expect the Cheetah to face:
The biggest challenge will be to adjust to the new set of predators in the region. Kuno today gets some portion of the excessive population of tigers that reach Kuno in search of a territory. It is also home to leopards, striped hyenas, sloth bears, and some wolves. Even though the cats selected for this program have been exposed to lions, leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs at home some of the predators they are likely to face here are different. The key will be how they would manage interactions with the leopards that are Kuno’s top predators today.
They have a new prey base to adjust to as populations of chausingha and chinkara are limited thus the most plentiful prey will be Chital deer and they do not have deer in Africa just antelopes.
Relocation of animals itself is a risk – As per Conservation & Wildlife Studies emeritus Director Dr. Ullas Karanth “rewilding is difficult on animals.” He shows concern about how these cheetahs will survive unless more and more animals are brought in from Africa to compensate for the expected losses. As per him even tougher species such as the tiger which can attain densities of 10-15 per 100 sq.km., of the many translocations done in India only one has been successful in Panna Tiger Reserve which today has a viable breeding population. As per Prof. Tordiffe - "We are taking animals out of a familiar environment, and it takes time for them to really feel comfortable in their new habitat. It is true that cheetahs are known to have lower survival rates after reintroductions than other large carnivores,"
Another challenge could be the man-animal conflict and goat becoming easy prey for the cheetahs. Although some villages have been relocated there are many that still exist, and such conflicts can never be good for such a small population.
Important steps to take and plan for success
Kuno has come a long way and a lot of investment is going into the park. The park was originally set up as an alternate landscape to hold and grow the Asiatic lion population.
Just the news of the coming of Cheetahs has got investors buying land for tourism. Even though Cheetah tourism in India is at least a couple of years away this is good news as the development of lodges around the park will lead to local employment and skill development in a region where it is drastically lacking.
Having spent a huge amount on this project India needs to get its wildlife tourism act together. Key things to focus on are:
Ensure that lodges are open in a systematic and planned manner. We do not need more destinations around serene, protected areas to turn into locations for destination weddings or conferences. We need to be sensitive to the region's environment when developing. Currently, there are no properties in Kuno except for MP Tourism.
You cannot work with a single gate entry system – There are villages all around Kuno’s periphery, and we need to ensure that the benefit of tourism is spread evenly as all of them face the hazards of living with wild animals. Else conservation will be extremely difficult.
We can not allow over-crowding and park capacities need to be fixed. I would recommend that we take inspiration from Satpura.
Wildlife Etiquette for driving around the park needs to be put in place early. Also, try and focus on non-motorized activities to ensure a low footprint.
Waste & Water management is key. Planning needs to start before the first lodge comes up.
Don’t get caught up in iconic species – ensure an environment of learning and sensitizing the tourists – foreign as well as domestic.
The government needs to work on women empowerment on similar lines as Dastakar in the region – so that by the time the tourists arrive they benefit from day 1 and do not begin learning then.
Launches, promotions, and announcements are great, but we need to do a lot more work on the park’s periphery if we need this to be a success. Cheetahs will thrive if the people living in the region thrive else it will just be another bane in their existence and conservation can not be a success with interactions that lead to friction.
We all want Cheetahs to thrive in India again, however, there are miles to go and lots needs to be done now that they are here. We are proud to have 16 species of wildcats, but this is also an added responsibility of all to make it a success. It should not just be another opportunity for business.