- Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) 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.
- In 1952, Asiatic cheetah was declared extinct from India, after decades of human intervention, hunting and habitat degradation.
- 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 (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) 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 categorised as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List.
- Over 70 years after they went extinct, eight African cheetahs from Namibia were released into Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh last year as part of India’s first inter-country big cat relocation project.
- Till now, twenty cheetahs were successfully translocated to Kuno National Park in the initial phase of an ambitious project to re-establish the species within its historical range in India.
- The translocation of African Cheetah is a part of Government of India to reintroduce the fastest land animal in India after extinction of the Asiatic cheetah in the 1950s.
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.
- Cheetahs dwell on open plains and it is mainly a grassland species. Grassland is an essential habitat for biodiversity conservation in India, as many threatened species in India belong to this habitat. Conserving cheetahs will lead to the conservation of all grassland species.
- The cheetah is the only large carnivore to have gone extinct in India, 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.
- One of the major concerns of the reintroduction project is whether the arriving cheetahs would bring diseases that could threaten other feline species. Transmission of these to the endemic tiger population is a cause for concern.
- Another issue is the larger debate on coexistence. The Kuno National Park is already home to around 30 leopards. Tigers from the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, 140 km away from Kuno, are also believed to migrate to the park. The proximity of three predators in the same ecosystem is fraught with risks.
- More aggressive predators such as tigers and leopards will compete with the cheetahs. They may be driven to the outskirts of the park, where they could come into conflict with humans.
Why in News?
- A team of experts visited the Kuno National Park and reviewed the current status of the Project Cheetah.
- Cheetahs fulfil a unique ecological role within the carnivore hierarchy and their restoration is expected to enhance ecosystem health in India.
- As a charismatic species, the cheetah can also benefit India’s broader conservation goals by improving general protection and ecotourism in areas that have been previously neglected.
About Kuno National Park
- It is located in Madhya Pradesh. Earlier it was a wildlife sanctuary but in 2018 it was given national park status.
- The Kuno river flows through the national park.
- Bio-Geographically this area falls under the Kathiawar-Gir dry deciduous forest ecoregion and the forest types found in this area include the Northern tropical dry deciduous forest, Southern tropical dry deciduous forest, Dry Savannah forest & grassland and Tropical riverine forest.
- The main predators in the protected area are Indian leopard, jungle cat, sloth bear, dhole, Indian wolf, golden jackal, striped hyena and Bengal fox.
- In the 1990s, it was selected as a possible site to implement the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project, which aimed at establishing a second lion population in India, apart from Gir National Park in Gujarat.