Return of the Sprinting Hunter
The fastest land animal on the planet, this lightweight feline has remarkable bodily adaptations for amazing swiftness and agility for predation
Currently, there are two extant sub-species of the cheetah in the world – the African (Acinonyx jubetus jubetus) and the Asiatic (Acinonyx jubetus venaticus). The extinction of the Asiatic cheetah from India in 1952 or thereabouts was a blow to the concepts of wildlife and biodiversity conservation. Thanks to the nascency of these philosophies, and more pressing problems of a newly independent developing country, only the enlightened, and farsighted naturalists and practicing foresters appreciated the disappearance from our wilds, one of the most amazing animals on the planet. Some conservation custodians, however, still carry on the profound remorse of losing this remarkable predator in Independent India.
Probably the fastest land animal, nature has evolved this aerodynamically framed animal over the vicissitudes of time to be counted among some fittest survivors in the wild. And today’s cheetah is a remarkable mix of adaptations for great swiftness and agility for predation, and outwitting and escaping its own predators. But some tradeoffs have also rendered it frail, sensitive and vulnerable. These well-adapted animals of open woody grasslands/ scrubland have carved out a special ecological niche for them that require excellent eyesight; long, exhausting coursings, quick watchful eating, prompt retreating, and saving their cubs from co-predators. Some major positive adaptations include light body weight (average adult male 35-70 kg.), flexible spine, flat face with well-positioned large eyes, long and lean legs, large internal vital organs, a thick tail and semi-retractable paws for balance when sprinting. Simply, genetic engineering at its best!
Cheetah have carved out a special ecological niche for them, and require specialized habitat and small prey size for survival
Small predators of small- to medium- sized prey, they have been facing serious challenges to their survival for decades. While their historical distribution included Africa and southwestern Asia, they are now known to be restricted to only around 9% of their original distribution range. And about 75% of the present range lies outside protected areas. Cheetah still face multiple threats in its distribution range. The Asian sub-species has precipitously declined in the past decades, with now only around 50 individuals in Iran. Over half of the rest of the world population of around 7000 animals in 33 small and large populations occurs as a transboundary population across 6 countries of South Africa. As per historical records, tens of thousands of cheetah used to occur in India during the past around 8 centuries, and the ultimate extinction had the typical Indian pattern of progressive decline of wildlife. The cheetah witnessed a vicious and decades-long trail of royal hunts, taming as pets for antelope hunting, poaching, forest fragmentation, and habitat loss, specially open woody grasslands/ scrubland, through diversions for agriculture expansions and development projects for the country’s increasing population. The historical range of the cheetah in India included almost the whole country, except the north-east.
Despite India supporting the second largest population of over 1.4 billion people in the world, with a forest and tree cover of only around 25% of the total geographical area, the country has earned tremendous respects for its consistency of resolve for wildlife conservation. Amid a mind boggling number of development projects in this vibrant democracy, the government has also taken impressive conservation initiatives across wildlife species and regions/ states, including an excellent protected area network in place. Project Tiger is now one of the most talked about projects in the world. Speaking generally, government policies/ legislations have aimed at strengthening protected areas and wildlife conservation through public institutions. Conservation science has also taken its firm roots, resulting in problem solving field researches, and proactive management involving conservation translocations for reintroduction and rewilding programmes. The large number of non-government organizations and individuals in this field also point to the growing conservation ethos and awareness.
The layout plan of soft-release/ holding predation-proof enclosure fitted with 360 degree CC monitoring cameras for cheetah
The old Kuno fort by the Kuno river
Euphoria over and self-confidence from these past conservation successes had been prompting the government and conservationists for many years to think about the scope for the cheetah’s reintroduction. Following intensive consultations/ meetings with experienced forest officers and wildlife scientists, a technical committee was constituted to visit South Africa/ Namibia for the study of free ranging cheetah and hold discussions there with cheetah experts, and also select the best reintroduction site in the country. Accordingly, after several months of field visits and long consultations, a detailed Action Plan with a host of standard parameters like site assessment, prey density, population viability and habitat assessment, carrying capacity, staff training, veterinary preparations, transportation of founder animals, monitoring in the enclosures, radio-collaring, actual release, animal monitoring in the wild, and community development was prepared, and the introduction of cheetah in India was formally launched by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, New Delhi, and the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Govt. of India. As the African sub-species was selected, it is now an introduction rather than a reintroduction programme. Kuno national park of Madhya Pradesh was chosen, over 9 other competing sites, as the most suitable site for this. Kuno is free from all biotic pressures, with no settlements/ village inside. Incidentally, Mr. JS Chauhan, the present Chief Wildlife Warden of Madhya Pradesh, is credited with the hassle free relocations of a number of villages from Kuno around 25 years back. Dr. YV Jhala, Senior Professor & Dean of the Wildlife Institute of India, is the Principal Investigator of the cheetah project.
A sweeping view of the national park
The action plan follows the IUCN guidelines for the reintroduction of a wildlife species to ensure selection of a suitable sub-species and a source population for founder animals for introduction. Genetic considerations should not be an issue as all the sub-species of the world are reported to be genetically close to the Asiatic cheetah. The founders would be soft-released by putting them in captivity for 6-8 weeks to keep their homing instinct intact and diminish the tendency for wide ranging dispersal, and later releasing them into the wild. Efforts will also be made in due time to establish several breeding populations in suitable and safe habitats across states.
A coalition (all-male group) of the African sub-species. The Asiatic sub-species is on the verge of extinction, with only around 50 animals in Iran.
Pros and cons
Naturally enough, the cheetah introduction plan has also raised a debate on the merits and demerits of this conservation initiative. Sometimes those on the other side refer to this undertaking as “vanity project”, which is rather unkind. Conservation history in the country is replete with examples that it is always only a few who have to take the lead amid uncertainty and hesitation. The idea of barasingha reintroduction into Satpura tiger reserve and of gaur into Bandhavgarh tiger reserve was also debated passionately. And so was the rewilding of a Kanha tigress as a founder into Panna tiger reserve for restoring tiger population. All these programmes, however, succeeded exceedingly well. The cheetah project can also be regarded as a proactive conservation intitiative. While the debate is a positive sign attesting to the conservation vibrancy in the country, unnecessary litigations sometimes cause inordinate delays resulting in the stoppage of action in the field and cost escalation of projects. Besides, if any foreign collaboration is involved in a project, the country also faces a bad press internationally, and the debaters are relegated to the background. The launch of Project Tiger in 1973 initially drew a lot of flak, even from some high profile forest professionals themselves, calling it “quixotic project”. The rest, however, is now history, as it went on to become one of most applauded conservaton projects in the world. While con siders are also well-meaning people, they are believers in enduring wait and meticulous watch.
As per the Action Plan, the construction of an enclosure for the soft-release of cheetah in progress
Dr. YV Jhala, Dean, WII, Dehradun, overseeing the construction of the enclosure
Special high definition CC cameras fitted six watch towers would be constructed around the enclosure for 24x7 surveillance of the founder cheetah
Reservations about the cheetah introduction range from being a superfluous initiative parallel to the serious and time-consuming tiger conservation, not suitable enough habitat of Kuno, interspecific strife, risks from co-predators, death due to starvation, and to man-animal conflict etc. As the cheetah introduction is supposed to be an experimental project in a few select areas, it would in no way disturb or distract others from tiger conservation. It should be seen as complementary rather than competitive or contradictory to keep up high spirit in conservation. Tiger conservation is here to stay on until we have sufficiently large enough tiger population, and this is bound to take several years, as some influential enthusiasts even claim that the country can support ten thousand tigers! Besides, the concept of umbrella species conservation for protecting tigers has successfully protected almost the entire spectrum of wildlife species. So, there would never be any opportunity in the near future, and always be too early to take up the cheetah project experimentation, and to break new ground in conservation.
Some South African cheetah experts have already visited Kuno national park and found it not only suitable but also better than some habitats supporting cheetah populations in their own country. Besides, cheetah do not need pure grassland ecosystems. They are known to survive in varied degree of open and savannah types of vegetation, also inhabiting shrubby and scrubby habitats, as cover is essential for them to get as close to their quarry as possible, reducing unnecessary long chases. Historically, cheetah once occupied a wide range of climatic and geographical zones in our country, and are known to have co-existed with co-predators like the tiger, lion, leopard, and small predators like the wild dog and jackal. At Kuno, the founders will be required to co-exist with leopards and striped hyenas. These founders have also shared habitats with leopards in South Africa and Namibia. Let us hope they would reach India with their survival instincts quite intact. Indian climate has also created such ecosystems in several states in the country for replicability, if required. As Kuno already supports several ungulate and small animal species, it can sustain a small population of cheetah for several years. If needed, the prey base can also be later augmented easily. No doubt, managerial interventions need to be taken up to improve/ ameliorate the chosen site to suite cheetah’s requirements. As far as man-animal conflict is concerned, speaking generally, cheetah are not known to attack humans. These lightweight animals have been closely observed to possess rather nervous and anxious temperament. The rule of thumb for the success of this introduction is stringent protection and sufficient prey base to help them regenerate and populate the area.
Chital are supposed to be the mainstay of cheetah’s prey base at Kuno
Blue bulls, another prey species, are animals of scrub forests, and would share the habitat with cheetah
Introduction site and preparations
Spread over an area of 748 sq.km., and located in the Sheopur district of Madhya Pradesh, part of the Vindhyan hills of central India, Kuno national park is named after the perennial river, meandering through the protected area, almost bisecting it. Biogeographically lying in the semi arid zone (4B), the national park supports open woodlands, savannahs, grasslands, with evergreen riverine ravines. Excellent forests consist of a number of tree species, including Anogeissus pendula (kardhai), Acacia catechu (khair), Boswellia serrata (salai), Lannea coromandelica (gurjan), Anogeissus latifilia (dhaora) and Zyzyphus mauritiana (ber) etc. Kuno also supports a wide range of wildlife species, including the chital, blackbuck, barking deer, blue bull, four-horned antelope, and chinkara, gray langur, rhesus macaque, Indian porcupine, and black-naped hare. Furthermore, the leopard, striped hyena, sloth bears, gray wolf, golden jackal, ratel, jungle cat, Asiatic wild cat, Indian gray and ruddy mongooses, also occur. Besides a number of shrub and climber species, the national park is comprised of open woodlands, scrubby growth, and savannahs that would form the mainstay of cheetah habitat. These excellent heterogeneous grassy expanses support a number of grass species for the present prey base of cheetah.
Brushwood eradication for the restocking of grassland for prey species inside the enclosure
Tractor ploughing for the restocking of grassland for prey species inside the enclosure
Waste root collection after ploughing for the restocking of grassland for prey species inside the enclosure
As the cheetah is a specialized animal, the introduction site must provide for its protection from biotic pressures, good habitat for preferred prey base, opportunities for application of all its inherent predation tactics/ strategies, and breeding and rearing prospects. Accordingly, a wide range of managerial activities are being carried out assiduously as per the Action Plan under the supervision of a dedicated and experienced wildlife manager, Mr. PK Verma, Deputy Director of the national park. The founder animals, around 10-12 vaccinated animals, are expected to reach the site by autumn this year. A predation-proof naturalistic or in-situ enclosure of six sq.kms, with seven compartments for segregation, would house these animals for 8-10 weeks. The enclosure would also have solar electric current with minor shocks to prevent intrusion of other animals from outside. The eighth opaque compartment in the centre would hold a small number of vaccinated chital to be driven into adjoining cheetah compartments for predation as and when necessary. The entire uncovered or transparent enclosure would help the cheetah get acclimated early to the surrounding environs. The entire enclosure will have excellent 360 degree CC cameras fitted in place for intensive monitoring of the animals. Besides, 6 watch towers fitted with powerful high definition CC cameras for 24x7 surveillance would also be installed around the enclosure. A control room would also be built to analyze collected data.
A wide range of habitat improvement works need to be undertaken inside the enclosure to ensure an excellent chunk of cheetah’s natural habitat, and their exposure to sensory stimuli from the environment. These initiatives include restocking of grassland by brushwood eradication, ploughing, cleaning and burning, before sowing seeds of palatable grass species for the prey base. Wherever required, select woody trees also need to be removed to ensure open woody grassland/ scrubland habitat. Weed eradication is another important initiative to keep the grassland healthy for palatable grasses. Besides, thorny shrubs also need to be eradicated to prevent animals from getting injured and to facilitate safe coursing for predation. Throughout the soft-release period, supplemental water would be provided to the cheetah and prey species by water guzzlers.
Masonry work on a watercourse bed to protect a particular part of the enclosure running across
The national park also carries a small population of the four-horned antelope
Almost the same protection and habitat improvement initiatives are also being taken up in the wild outside the enclosure, once the cheetah are soft-released into the open. The Kuno management has already identified some sensitive areas that require rubble masonry wall and fences to minimize interface problems. All these radio-collared soft-released animals will also be monitored for long to know about their dispersal and movement patterns. Needless to add, the Kuno management should also take the local community into confidence by seriously engaging with them, and taking up some important confidence building measures to make this project a success.