In Retrospect

A misbegotten priority

At a time when multiple endangered species in India are teetering on the verge of extinction and tribal populations are languishing under extreme poverty, the extra lavish spending on non-prospective relocation of African Cheetah to an alien land is questionable

A misbegotten priority

Indian Prime Minister celebrated his 72nd birthday on September 17 by releasing eight African cheetahs, flown in from Namibia, into the Kuno National Park (KNP) of Madhya Pradesh. He said that Project Cheetah, under which the felines were reintroduced, was his government's endeavour toward environment and wildlife conservation. "It is unfortunate that we declared cheetahs extinct in 1952, but for decades no constructive efforts were made to reintroduce them in India. Now, with new strength and vigour, the country has embarked on the project of reviving the population of cheetah during this amrit kaal," he said. Within a few days, Jairam Ramesh, former Minister of State for Environment and Forest, through his official Twitter handle, claimed that the previous government had already launched Project Cheetah in October 2009.

Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) has signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) for meeting two-thirds of the Rs 75 crore project cost. Under this project, a source population of 15-20 cheetahs will be flown in from Namibia and South Africa, and introduced at Kuno National Park. As per a report by India TV News, IOC will be contributing Rs 50.22 crore over the next five years for cheetah reintroduction as well as for its habitat management and protection, ecology development, staff training, and veterinary healthcare. It is being claimed that the project entails the world's first intercontinental relocation of cheetahs — the planet's fastest land animal. Al Jazeera reported that the five females and three males were moved from a game park in Namibia on board a chartered Boeing 747, dubbed "Cat Plane" for an 11-hour flight.

As per a report by Indiaspend, the potential cheetah habitat covering over 3,200 sq. km (up from the current 740 sq. km) in the Kuno landscape, with restorative measures and scientific management, could provide a prey base for up to 36 cheetahs.

Why African cheetahs?

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is listed as 'vulnerable' in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species of 2021. There are only 6,517 mature individuals left in the world. Cheetah is native to countries including Botswana, Chad, Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. In Asia, cheetahs are now confined to Iran and comprise the subspecies A. j. venaticus, commonly known as the Asiatic cheetah. A recent review showed that there are less than 50 mature cheetahs in Iran now.

Experts claim that the name 'cheetah' originates from the Sanskrit language and means 'the spotted one'. The species is depicted in ancient Neolithic cave paintings in central India. The subspecies found in Iran at present is the same one that disappeared from India in the 1940s, and was officially declared extinct in 1952. However, there were a few sporadic reports of sightings from the central and Deccan regions till the mid-1970s.

Officials claim that as few Asiatic cheetahs now survive in Iran, they cannot be considered for translocation to India. Moreover, cheetahs from Southern Africa have the maximum observed genetic diversity among extant cheetah lineages — an important attribute for a founding population stock. The Southern African cheetahs are found to be ancestral to all the other cheetah lineages, including those found in Iran. Hence, the Indian government decided to undertake the transcontinental translocation of the African cheetah to India.

The genesis of the project

In 2009, discussions to bring the cheetah back to India were initiated by the Wildlife Trust of India. Experts from across the world and government officials decided to conduct site surveys to explore the potential for reintroduction. The former cheetah range states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh were prioritised.

The press release, dated January 7, 2022, by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, says, the Government of India has decided to reintroduce cheetahs under the 'Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India'. Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Bhupender Yadav informed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was keen on protecting and conserving seven major big cats, including the cheetah. "Project Cheetah aims to bring back independent India's only extinct large mammal – the cheetah. As part of the project, 50 cheetahs will be introduced in various National Parks over five years", the press release claimed.

Amongst the 10 surveyed sites of the central Indian states, Kuno Palpur National Park (KNP) in Madhya Pradesh, has been rated the highest. This is because of its suitable habitat and adequate prey base. KNP is 748 sq. km in area, forms part of the Sheopur-Shivpuri deciduous open forest landscape, and is estimated to have a capacity to sustain 21 cheetahs. Considering climatic variables, prey density, population of competing predators, and the historical range, Kuno was found to be the most preferred habitat.

The other sites recommended for holding and conservation breeding of cheetah in India, in controlled wild conditions, are:

⁕ Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary (1,197 sq. km, habitat 5,500, Madhya Pradesh

⁕ Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary-Bhainsrorgarh Wildlife Sanctuary complex (~2,500, Madhya Pradesh

⁕ Shahgarh bulge in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan (4,220

⁕ Mukundara Tiger Reserve as fenced enclosure (~80, Rajasthan

The press release claimed that Kuno was probably the only wildlife site in the country where there had been a complete relocation of villages from inside the park. Kuno also offered the prospect of housing four big cats of India — tiger, lion, leopard, and cheetah — and allowing them to coexist as in the past. Prior to the induction of the African cheetahs, the government had planned to relocate a few lions from Gujarat's Gir forest to Kuno.

A large number of Asiatic lions left in the Gir Forest of Western India — their last remaining natural habitat — survived in a tiny patch of forest where one disease epidemic or forest fire could wipe them out forever. Accordingly, an initiative was taken to translocate a few lions to Kuno, as it was considered to be a historical habitat of Asiatic lions. After a survey of the potential status for the reintroduction of the Asiatic lion, a final report was published on January 31, 1995, and Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary emerged as the most suitable habitat for the reintroduction of the species. The Council of Ministers approved the project on February 28, 1996.

Between 1996 and 2001, 24 villages with about 1,547 families had been translocated from the sanctuary by the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department. The government of Madhya Pradesh had also demarcated 1,280 sq. km Kuno Wildlife Division, encompassing the Sironi, Agra and Morawan forest ranges around the sanctuary. The Government of India, in its order dated January 1997, instructed the diversion of 3,720.9 hectares of forest land, including 18 villages that were protected under Section 2 of the Forest Conservation Act. A 20-year project envisaged by the government was also approved by the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) in its meeting held on March 10, 2004. The government of Madhya Pradesh carried out massive relocation drives in villages and gave the villagers alternative sites.

Meanwhile, the state of Gujarat filed a detailed affidavit before the Supreme Court on April 4, 2009, stating that the state had an objection to the translocation of lions. It was also pointed out that there was no sufficient prey base at Kuno so as to receive lions. Moreover, previous attempts of translocation from Gujarat were also a failure. Since the Greater Gir region is ideal for preservation and conservation of Asiatic lions, there was no necessity of finding a second home for an Asiatic lion at Kuno.

The Supreme Court, in its judgment dated April 15, 2013, observed that while the matter was being heard, a decision was made by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) to import African Cheetahs from Namibia to India and to introduce the same at Kuno. The court had granted a stay on May 8, 2012 on the decision of MoEF to import the Cheetahs from Namibia to India for introducing them at Kuno. Serious objections were raised by the amicus curiae PS Narasimha against the introduction of foreign species at Kuno. The learned amicus curiae pointed out that the National Wildlife Action Plan (NWAP 2002-2016), which was a National Policy document, did not envisage the reintroduction of a foreign species to India. The policy only mentioned re-introduction or finding of an alternative home for species like the Asiatic lion.

The Supreme Court (2013) made the following major observations:

⁕ The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) has not conducted any detailed study before passing the order of introducing foreign cheetahs to Kuno. Kuno is not a historical habitat for African cheetahs; no materials have been placed before us to establish that fact. A detailed scientific study has to be done before introducing a foreign species to India, which has not been done in the instant case.

⁕ We may indicate that our top priority is to protect Asiatic lions, an endangered species, and to provide them a second home. Various steps have been taken over the last few decades, but nothing has transpired so far. Crores of rupees have been spent by the Government of India and the state of Madhya Pradesh for the reintroduction of Asiatic lions at Kuno. At this stage, in our view, the decision taken by the MoEF to introduce African cheetahs first at Kuno, and then the Asiatic lion, is arbitrarily illegal, and a clear violation of the statutory requirements provided under the Wildlife Protection Act. The order of MoEF to introduce African Cheetahs at Kuno cannot stand in the eye of Law and the same is quashed.

⁕ MoEF's decision for re-introduction of an Asiatic lion from Gir to Kuno is of utmost importance so as to preserve the Asiatic lion, an endangered species that cannot be delayed.

⁕ NWAP (2002-2016) has already identified species like the Great Indian Bustard, Bengal Florican, Dugong, the Manipur Brow Antlered Deer, Asiatic Lion and Wild Buffalo as endangered species and, hence, we are inclined to give a direction to the Government of India and the MoEF to take urgent steps for the preservation of those endangered species as well as to initiate recovery programmes.

⁕ The Government of India and the MoEF are directed to identify, as already highlighted by NWAP, all endangered species of flora and fauna, study their needs and survey their environs and habitats to establish the current level of security and the nature of threats. They should also conduct periodic reviews of flora and fauna species' status, and correlate the same with the IUCN Red Data List every three years.

The honourable Supreme Court clearly stated in 2013 that the MoEF had not conducted any detailed study before passing the order of introducing foreign cheetahs to Kuno.

In early 2020, the Supreme Court lifted its stay on the proposal to reintroduce cheetahs to the subcontinent, and in January 2021, Kuno was selected as the site for this experiment.


Many eminent conservationists think that translocating African Cheetahs to India Is a bad idea — a vanity project to grab eyeballs. Senior conservationist and author on wildlife, Valmik Thapar, is unsure whether the cheetahs will survive in the wild in India. "We do not have the habitat or prey species for wild, free-roaming cheetahs," Thapar said. "The authorities have no experience or understanding of cheetahs in the wild. African cheetahs, if released into Kuno, will survive only in the short term, and that too if frequently baited. India was never the natural home of African Cheetahs", he added. Valmik Thapar also listed worries about "how the big cat will walk, hunt, feed and bring up its cubs" at Kuno National Park, where it faces "a lack of space and prey". "This area is full of hyenas and leopards, who are key enemies of the cheetah. If you see in Africa, hyenas chase and even kill cheetahs," he said in an interview with NDTV. "There are 150 villages around, which have dogs that can tear cheetahs apart. It's a very gentle animal…In places like the Serengeti (National Park in Tanzania), cheetahs can run away because there are large expanses of grassland. In Kuno, unless the government converts woodland to grassland, it's a problem...Can the government convert woodland to grassland? Does the law allow this," Thapar asked, rhetorically.

The noted conservationist has identified the tiger as another potential threat to cheetah in Kuno: "Sometimes even tigers come here from Ranthambore, one of the reasons why lions could not be relocated. That's not often. But we will have to enclose that corridor too." He also listed out problems in finding prey, "In the Serengeti, there are about a million-plus gazelles available. In Kuno, unless the government breeds and brings in blackbucks or chinkaras (which live on grasslands), the cheetahs will have to hunt the spotted deer, which are forest animals and can hide. These deer also have large antlers and can injure the cheetah. And cheetahs cannot afford injury; it's mostly fatal for them."

A Bishnoi organisation has already written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, claiming that deer were being "dropped" into the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh to feed the cheetahs, recently brought there from Namibia, and said the practice should end. The community is known for revering blackbuck in particular, and wildlife in general.

The cheetah is believed to be one of the oldest surviving big cats, but it is extremely vulnerable to ecological and environmental changes, including loss of habitat. One of the most serious concerns is the high cub mortality seen among the natural cheetah population across countries, considering it can go up to 50 per cent. Another important consideration is their immunity. Since they come from a distant continent with a different epidemiological environment, they may not have the innate immunity that the native population of predators has, in case of any infection. With climate change, loss of habitat, and altering of the way pathogens exist, these disease risks are bound to increase.

The other most serious concern around the arrival of cheetahs in the Kuno National Park (KNP), located in the Sheopur district of Madhya Pradesh, is the life and livelihood of the people living in the surrounding areas. They are now worried that their land will be acquired and there will also be a human-animal conflict. Villagers are already affected financially because of the relocation of 25 villages to Kuno Park over the last 15 years. The remaining four-five villages are likely to be shifted for the expansion of the park, reported India Today NE.

Approximately 250 families in Bagcha are expected to be relocated, along with the villages Jangarh and Maratha, in order to almost double the 748 square kilometers of Kuno's 'protected area'. For Adivasi communities like the Sahariyas, and other castes like Gujjars and Jatavs, this leaves them with few options other than to relocate with the arrival of the cheetahs. Now if villages like Bagcha that are heavily forest-dependent need to be relocated from a protected area, one option they can undertake is "voluntary relocation", as described in the National Tiger Conservation Act's 2010 guidelines. Between 1996 and 2002, 24 villages were relocated from within the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife National Park — most of these were a mix of induced and forced displacements, yet were listed as 'voluntary' by the Forest Department.


Acute malnutrition among Sahariyas, a particularly vulnerable tribal group, due to crushing poverty, delayed breastfeeding, premature pregnancies, and seasonal migration is continuing to take away lives. As a result, every second child under five in the Sheopur District (where KNP is located) of Madhya Pradesh is underweight, reported The Hindu. In the surrounding area, where the Kuno National Park is located, there are about 23 villages that are struggling with poverty and malnutrition. Their total population is about 56,000, reported NDTV. Instead of spending millions on an experiment to adapt a vulnerable foreign feline in a hostile eco-system, the government should pay more attention to ensuring the life and livelihood of the marginalised citizens and take urgent steps for the preservation of endangered local species like the Great Indian Bustard, Bengal Florican, Dugong, the Manipur Brow Antlered Deer, Asiatic Lion, and Wild Buffalo.

Views expressed are personal

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