- Asiatic cheetah is classified as a “critically endangered” species by the IUCN Red List, and is believed to survive only in Iran.
- Asiatic cheetahs were once widespread across India but were eradicated in the country as they were hunted for sport.
- Historically, Asiatic cheetahs had a very wide distribution in India. There are authentic reports of their occurrence from as far north as Punjab to Tirunelveli district in southern Tamil Nadu, from Gujarat and Rajasthan in the west to Bengal in the east.
- The cheetah’s habitat was also diverse, favoring the more open habitats: scrub forests, dry grasslands, savannas and other arid and semi-arid open habitats.
- In 1952, Asiatic cheetah was declared extinct from India, after decades of human intervention, hunting and habitat degradation.
- In Iran, the last surviving population of wild Asiatic cheetahs are found in hilly terrain, foothills and rocky valleys within a desert ecosystem, spread across seven provinces of Yazd, Semnan, Esfahan, North Khorasan, South Khorasan, Khorasan Razavi and Kerman.
- The current estimate of the population of wild Asiatic cheetahs is about 40 with 12 identified adult animals.
- It is recorded that the last cheetahs were shot in India in 1947, but there are credible reports of sightings of the cat till about 1967.
- Asiatic cheetahs are almost identical in appearance to their better known African cousins. However, there are subtle differences.
- The Asiatic cheetah is slightly smaller and paler than its African cousin.
- The African cheetah is spread out across Africa from Northwest Africa, East Africa, and Southern Africa. With a bigger territory, the African cheetahs have higher populations compared to Asiatic cheetahs.
- They are categorized as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List.
- The Government of India decided to reintroduce cheetahs, under the ‘Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India’.
- Project Cheetah aims to bring back independent India’s only extinct large and fastest mammal – the cheetah. As part of the project, 50 cheetahs will be introduced in various National Parks over five years.”
- The stated goal is to establish viable cheetah metapopulation in India that allows the cheetah to perform its functional role as a top predator and to provide space for the expansion of the cheetah within its historical range thereby contributing to its global conservation efforts.
- Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park is all set to reintroduce African Cheetahs as part of India’s first inter-country big cat relocation project. The cheetahs will be donated by Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) of South Africa.
Why do conservationists want to reintroduce cheetahs?
- A section of conservationists has long advocated the reintroduction of the species in the country.
- They argue that introductions of large carnivores have increasingly been recognised as a strategy to conserve threatened species and restore ecosystem functions.
- The cheetah is the only large carnivore that has been extirpated, mainly by over-hunting in India in historical times. India now has the economic ability to consider restoring its lost natural heritage for ethical as well as ecological reasons.
Complexities in introducing African Cheetahs in India
- According to some experts, it was more important to conserve species that were still extant such as the lion and tiger, rather than trying to re-establish an extinct species that had little chance of surviving in a greatly transformed country.
- African cheetahs are not required to perform the role of the top predator in these habitats when the site (Kuno) that they have identified already has a resident population of leopards, transient tigers and is also the site for the translocation of Asiatic lions as ordered by the Supreme Court of India in 2013.
- One of the goals is to enhance India’s capacity to sequester carbon through ecosystem restoration activities in cheetah conservation areas and thereby contribute towards the global climate change mitigation goals. Experts contend that this objective does not require the introduction of African cheetahs, at a cost of ₹40 crore, with the attendant risks of diseases which haven’t really been dealt with.
- The lack of extensive areas extending in hundreds if not thousands of square kilometers with sufficient density of suitable prey, it is very unlikely that African cheetahs would ever establish themselves in India as a truly wild and self-perpetuating population.
- A major consequence of the project will be the diversion of scarce conservation resources, distraction from the real conservation priorities and a further delay in the translocation of lions to Kuno.