Should the cheetah make a comeback?
Atul Sethi, TNN 2 August 2009, 03:50am IST
NEW DELHI: Union minister of state for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh's announcement in Parliament that the cheetah would be reintroduced in India should have had every wildlife lover leaping with joy. Just imagine the sight of the sleek ash-gold cat - the world's fastest land animal - racing on grasslands here. But marring this picture-perfect sight is the country's poor record of big cat conservation.
Tigers, which numbered 40,000 a century ago, are down to 1,400 and conservationists point out that resources could be better spent on saving the tiger and other endangered species instead of importing cheetahs from Africa. "The meagre resources available should be spent on the protection of severely threatened wildlife," says Brig (retd) Ranjit Talwar, formerly with the tiger conservation cell of the World Wildlife Fund-India (WWF-India).
But one person who is celebrating is M K Ranjitsinh. As chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, Ranjitsinh is an active proponent of the move to bring back the spotted cat and also heads the cheetah re-introduction program. "Conservation of grasslands, the cheetah's habitat, is the main objective behind reintroducing the cat.
Grasslands have been over-exploited in India, either for agriculture or grazing, resulting in severe degradation," says Ranjitsinh. This would also help in the conservation of other endangered grassland fauna like the Great Indian Bustard.
"Nobody is saying don't save the tiger or other animals. However, if we want to protect our grasslands, then bringing back the cheetah is a step in the right direction," says Divyabhanusinh Chavda, president of WWF-India and author of 'The End Of A Trail - The Cheetah In India'.
But, according to P K Sen, former director of Project Tiger, the move could run into practical problems. When the cheetahs existed in undivided India, the country's population was around 330 million and there were about 40 million cattle. The scenario today is totally different - 1.2 billion people and over 400 million free grazing cattle. "Do we have 1,000 sq km of grasslands free to harbour a few cheetahs and do they have sufficient prey?"
These are pertinent questions. Reintroduction of any species, particularly a carnivore, is often a difficult proposition. It's also possible that after the cheetah's introduction, the man-animal conflict may take a different turn.
But Ranjitsinh does not agree. "There are numerous villages near tiger sanctuaries like Ranthambhore. Tigers don't go stalking their prey near these villages," he says. At the same time, he concedes that there is a lot to be thrashed out before the project finally gets off the ground. A clear picture is expected to emerge when a scientific roadmap for the cheetah's re-introduction is rolled out in September. Clearly, it's a long road ahead for the big cat.