I first read the proposals of the cheetah reintroduction scheme in India back in 2009. Today it is in the news that the Central Government has approved of a $65 million plan to bring the cheetah back to India.
Cheetahs became extinct in India in the 1960s as they were excessively hunted. The plan is to import the cats from Africa, Middle-East and Iran. Kuno Palpur and Nauradehi wildlife sanctuaries in MP and Shahgarh area near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan have been selected as the reintroduction site. The program will take about 3 years to complete in various phases and will have IUCN involvement along the way.
Jairam Ramesh the Indian Minister of Environment has been quoted saying that the reintroduction of the cheetah will improve the health of Indian grasslands. Grasslands are one of the most productive terrestrial ecosystems and have been severely exploited by over-grazing and agriculture. Restoring the balance of this ecosystem will mean that other species depending on the grasslands will also flourish. The endangered imperiled great Indian bustard and caracal among others will benefit from the reintroduction of an apex predator whose role is to restore balance to the ecosystem.
One of the most successful reintroduction programs to date is the Yellowstone program to bring back the wolves. It was fraught with complications and almost did not take off, the cheetah program will face similar challenges. Animals that are reintroduced suffer various degrees of stress from transportation to adaptive problems that can affect their reproductive abilities.
If this program is successful, it will be a great boost to Indian wildlife as well as tourism in these areas. The ecosystem of the grass-lands will also benefit greatly due to the introduction of an apex predator. This reintroduction program should also be done without diverting funds away from other conservation programs in the country, most importantly the tiger conservation.
This is something that has been promised by the MoEF and only time will tell if the program can be deemed a success. With only 10,000 cheetahs left in the wild world-over, increasing their range is essential to the species' survival. Cheetahs unlike other cats don't breed well in captivity and are prone to various genetic ailments and diseases due to less diversity and inter-breeding.
Introduction of the cheetah in India will see that the species thrives as a separate sub-species in the years to come. The Asiatic cheetah thrives only in Iran and it is critically endangered - this is the same species that was once abundant in India. With the reintroduction, India can boast that it is the only country in the world that hosts 6 of the 8 big cat species.
I'm skeptical and hopeful at the same time. It seems to me that Indian wildlife authorities are trying to open a new can of worms without figuring out methods to deal with existing wildlife problems. All of the big cats in India are endangered - with this kind of track record, can the cheetah hope to survive?
Photo: Painting of Akbar hunting wiht locally trapped Asiatic Cheetahs c. 1602. He was said to have had 1000 cheetahs assisting in his royal hunts.