Cheetahs once darted across the Indian subcontinent, their numbers so plentiful that the revered Mughal emperor Akbar was said to have kept a stable filled with 1,000 of the spotted creatures. But by the mid-20th century, the cheetah had been declared extinct in India, pushed to the brink by threats like habitat destruction and overhunting. Now, as Joe Wallen of the Telegraph reports, the country’s supreme court has ruled that the fleet-footed cats can be reintroduced to the country on an experimental basis, approving a plan that has divided conservationists.
The court’s ruling was prompted by an application filed by India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority, which sought permission to transfer cheetahs from Namibia, according to the Hindustan Times. In light of the ruling, authorities will move forward with identifying a suitable habitat for the program, assessing such factors as prey availability and the potential for human-cheetah conflict. Among the sites that have been suggested for the relocation are the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, the Velavadar National Park in Gujarat and the Tal Chapar sanctuary in Rajasthan.
As Namrata Kolachalam reported for the Atlantic in September, the Indian government has spent decades trying to bring cheetahs back to the country. As far back as the 1970s, officials tried to secure the big cats from Iran, which today is home to the world’s last stand of Asiatic cheetahs—a struggling population of fewer than 50 individuals. Conservationists worked to increase populations of cheetah prey like the Indian antelope and Indian gazelle. But negotiations crumbled after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Decades later, plans to clone Asiatic cheetahs also came to naught. So proponents of the reintroduction program shifted focus to importing African cheetahs, a distinct subspecies from the Asiatic cheetah.
The new approach has drawn criticism from both conservationists and scientists. For one, experts are divided over the degree of genetic differences in cheetah subspecies, and whether those differences matter. “It would be like having an African lion in a wild park in Europe,” conservation geneticist Pamela Burger of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna tells Kolachalam of the reintroduction plan. “Of course, you can have that, but then it’s an African lion living in Europe. Not a European lion.”
There are more acute concerns, as well. According to the Hindustan Times, some activists say that none of the proposed habitats in India are large enough to accomodate cheetahs, and that these areas do not have enough prey to sustain the big cats. “Serengeti National Park in Tanzania has an area of 14,750 square kilometres brimming with prey base,” the publication notes. “[T]he proposed Indian wildlife habitats do not have an area of more than 1,000 square kilometers, and with much less prey base than the African homes of cheetahs.”
Also fuelling concerns is India’s inconsistent record when it comes to managing big cats. Thanks to intensive conservation efforts, the country’s tiger populations are said to be growing at a rapid rate. But lions that were introduced to the Chandraprabha sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh in the 1950s were “poached out of existence,” according to the BBC. In the summer of 2019, it was revealed that more than 200 lions had died in the Gir forest region of Gujarat, mostly due to infections and illness. Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta of the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment in India tells Kolachalam that the plan to introduce cheetah’s to India’s natural landscape is “a clear case of misplaced priorities,” one that will detract from efforts to protect endangered species already living in the country.
But some conservationists are enthusiastic about the possibility of bringing cheetahs back to India. The animals are listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and transporting African cheetahs to new habitat could improve their long-term viability, Kolachalam writes. Proponents also say that the reintroduction project will only move forward once potential habitats have been fully assessed for their habitat, prey stock and risk of human-cheetah conflict.
Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who initiated the reintroduction program ten years ago, said he was “delighted” by the Supreme Court’s ruling. “It is,” he claims, “a momentous occasion.”