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The 360° UPSC Debate: Project Cheetah — Is it problematic, or is it too early to judge?

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What’s the debate?

India has a project to reintroduce the cheetah in its forests, seven decades after the last member of the species went extinct in the country. Under Project Cheetah, the animals are translocated from the forests of South Africa and Namibia to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh. But the death of six imported cheetahs – including three newborns – has prompted some people to question the project. Is Project Cheetah founded on sustainable principles? We here list the arguments from both sides.

First a few facts about Project Cheetah

• Project Cheetah has been a decade in the making, but the first translocation took place only last year.• The project aims to reintroduce the graceful feline in India. Cheetahs are the fastest land animals and can, in short sprints on open ground, reach speeds in excess of 100 kph.• Asiatic Cheetahs were once abundant in India but their numbers dwindled over the centuries due to loss of habitat and widespread hunting. The last cheetah in the country died in 1952.• The animals brought from Namibia and South Africa are the Southeast African cheetahs – a different subspecies.• Since last year, Kuno National Park has received 20 cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa with the aim of establishing a free-ranging population.

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What Critics of This Project Say“The programme was at best creating ‘a glorified safari park’ with little to do with conservation”

Science relies on constructive criticism, and scientific rigour is only achieved when an idea is subject to scrutiny. The reintroduction of cheetahs in India has sparked a debate among the scientific community and outside. In the scholarly journal Nature Ecology and Evolution dated October 2022, eight wildlife specialists voiced concern that India’s cheetah reintroduction strategy was based on an unfounded assumption that the country has sufficient and suitable habitat for cheetahs. They further claimed that the plan disregards critical scientific results from recent demographic research on free-roaming cheetahs.

The programme has also attracted criticism from numerous wildlife and conservation experts who contend that Kuno National Park may not be a suitable habitat for accommodating a large population of cheetahs. This is due to the fact that cheetahs typically require expansive habitats spanning thousands of square miles to roam freely. The area of Kuno is expected to be below 500 square miles.

During a recent hearing in the Supreme Court, the judges remarked that Kuno National Park was deemed unsuitable as a habitat for numerous African cheetahs. It seems that Kuno is inadequate to accommodate such a large number of cheetahs. The panel of judges expressed concern over the high density of cheetahs in a particular location. The individuals in question urged the government to transcend political considerations and contemplate relocating certain cheetahs to alternative states, such as Rajasthan, where an opposition party holds sway at the state level. It is imperative to provide protection and appropriate habitat for the preservation of the subject in question. The bench suggested exploring alternative habitats that may be more suitable than Kuno.

Criticism on the reintroduction of cheetahs has been raised by Indian scientists and the global community. These critiques have highlighted the spatial and habitat ecology requirements of cheetahs, as well as the potential for conflict with humans and other carnivores such as tigers and leopards during large-scale dispersal. The preservation of carnivores in environments that are heavily influenced by human activity necessitates a multidisciplinary approach that extends beyond the purview of wildlife biologists. This is evidenced by the numerous scientific publications of international scope that are co-authored by specialists from diverse fields. The aforementioned scenario evokes parallels with the Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, wherein the principal scientist is cognizant of the impracticality of introducing salmon fish in Yemen, but nonetheless undertakes the endeavour due to political exigencies. The extent to which political pressure superseded scientific judgements with respect to the reintroduction of cheetahs in India remainsuncertain.

Researchers have cautioned that the introduction of African cheetahs to India was carried out without due consideration of their spatial ecology, potentially resulting in conflicts with local communities in nearby villages. Spatial ecology pertains to the fundamental impacts of spatial factors on the locomotion of individual species and the stability of communities comprising multiple species.

According to noted carnivore biologist Ravi Chellam and conservationist Valmik Thapar, there is no adequate habitat in India for cheetahs to live in the wild. WII’s principal scientist, who was part of the reintroduction project, previously advocated other locations for wild cats in Rajasthan. The Biodiversity Collaborative’s coordinator, Ravi Chellam, said the programme was at best creating ‘a glorified safari park’ with little to do with conservation and could have a negative impact on the health of the animals and wider conservation efforts in India. The deaths have brought attention to much more fundamental problems, he remarked.

Ravi Chellam says that the death of a mature cheetah does not necessarily connote the inadequacy of Project Cheetah, and similarly, the arrival of these new-born cubs does not unequivocally signify its triumph. It is noteworthy to consider that the mating occurred within a confined area measuring less than six square kilometres, and the cubs were also delivered within the same enclosure. The present project is founded on unsatisfactory scientific principles, contradicts officially declared conservation objectives, and is additionally incongruous with legal regulations. According to his statement, India made a mistake by introducing cats to habitats that were not yet of sufficient size and quality. The extended period of captivity is likely to have adverse effects on the feline species. It is imperative that the importation of cheetahs from Africa be deferred until the provision of secure and high-quality habitats for their accommodation is ensured.

According to Pradnya Giradkar, the foremost specialist in cheetah conservation in India, the reintroduction of the species has presented a significant obstacle. The cheetah is the sole documented instance of an animal species that has gone extinct in India as a result of non-natural factors. Hence, it is imperative to conduct scientific investigations on the ecological interplay among habitat composition, habitat quality, and demography of cheetahs and their prey to ensure their sustainability.

Pradnya Giradkar further adds that the discussion of human-animal conflict, an issue that sometimes doesn’t get the attention it needs, has been sparked by the introduction of the new species. A price has been paid for some of India’s wildlife protection program accomplishments. In many areas of the nation today, protected species and people coexist. Depredations of crops and assaults on livestock and even people have grown frequent.

Research on the carrying capacity of national parks and sanctuaries has only lately started. They have yet to be effectively applied to re-establish some sort of harmony between animals and local residents who live close to protected areas (PAs). The issue is made worse by the fragmentation of PAs caused by development projects like motorways, which increases the precarity of the animals because they find it challenging to respect the new limits. A growing proportion of animals that are protected reside in decreasing habitats with decreasing prey populations. Redressing this ecological imbalance is necessary.

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Counterpoint: Too Early to Judge“The conservation or rehabilitation of major predators is a protracted process. Project Cheetah is set to become a reality”

According to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which is assisting the Indian government in reintroducing cheetahs to the country, the cheetah project in India is advancing favourably beyond the initial estimations made prior to the translocation of the animals. The continuation of Project Cheetah has been confirmed.

The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), an international organisation that facilitated the historic translocation, has expressed its happiness at the first Indian cubs born to a Namibian cheetah, while acknowledging and accepting the losses that may arise from the introduction of these cheetahs. It is premature to classify Project Cheetah as a success. Thus far, the cheetahs have exhibited the capacity to thrive in the Indian ecosystem. The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), which is the longest-running cheetah conservation project in Africa, has expressed that although there may be more obstacles in the future, the progress in India is positive. The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) underscored that an accurate determination of the cheetah’s home ranges is presently unattainable until they have firmly established their territories.

The field teams of the cheetah project have been observed to be rapidly advancing India’s knowledge and understanding of cheetahs. The individuals are being presented with a diverse range of veterinary concerns and behavioural patterns that are linked to cheetahs that roam freely. According to the statement, the likelihood of achieving success in the long run is positively impacted with the acquisition of each of these lessons.

Yadvendradev Jhala, an esteemed conservationist and former dean at the prestigious Wildlife Institute of India, has played a pivotal role in the development of the cheetah reintroduction initiative. According to Jhala, India possesses a varied genetic makeup of cheetahs with 20 individuals originating from two distinct countries. If a careful approach to breeding is implemented, this diversity could be preserved for future generations. Cheetahs exhibit high reproductive rates in favourable ecological conditions. The successful reproduction and mating behaviours exhibited by three female cubs in Kuno suggest that the environmental conditions in this region are conducive to their survival and reproductive success. The welfare of offspring is a matter of utmost importance. Approximately half of the cheetah cubs are able to survive in their natural habitat, but are vulnerable to predation by larger carnivores. In environments with limited predation, such as the Kuno enclosure, the likelihood of cub survival can reach as high as 90-95%. The aforementioned approach is expected to facilitate a rise in the indigenous cheetah populations while simultaneously decreasing our reliance on imports, he added.

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The University of California-Berkeley (UCB) has recently conducted a study which suggests that the efficacy of wildlife translocation is contingent upon several factors, including the species in question, its ability to adapt to a new environment and reproduce successfully, and the allocation of sufficient time and resources towards the translocation process. The successful translocation of wildlife is contingent upon the integration of human-related factors, biological factors, and environmental considerations. The efficacy of wildlife breeding initiatives necessitates an assessment conducted over extended time periods. The augmentation of the lion population in Gir, Gujarat, and the rise in tiger numbers are attributed to persistent endeavours spanning several decades. Hence, it is premature to make a judgement on the failure of the cheetah translocation programme.

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In an interview with DTE, Divyabhanusinh, the author of the book ‘The End of a Trail: The Cheetah in India,’ and a former president of the World Wide Fund for Nature-India (WWF- India), as well as a member of the Government of India’s Cheetah Task Force for the animal’s reintroduction, shared his insights. Fatalities are inevitable. Fifty years ago, the initiative known as Project Tiger was launched. After a span of fifty years, the tiger population has finally reached a milestone of 3,000. In 1952, there were hardly any rhinoceroses left in Assam. After seven decades, the current rhino population stands at 4,000. In 1879, the initial endeavour to safeguard the Asiatic lion was undertaken. The situation escalated as the object in question encountered a bottleneck. As of today, there are almost 700 lions. He further emphasised that the conservation or rehabilitation of major predators is a protracted process. Project Cheetah is set to become a reality. According to the Cheetah Action Plan, a total of 50 cheetahs are needed within a timeframe of 10 to 15 years. Afterwards, they are required to disperse to other sanctuaries and national parks. A genetically viable population for a prolonged period can only be achieved under these circumstances. The process is quite lengthy. It would be premature for me to declare it a success or failure.

Stotra Chakrabarti in her article Why there is hope for the cheetah in India writes: The present “conservation introduction” project to bring back the cheetah in India proposes to re-instil the evolutionary potential of ONEs, enhance the “charismatic” value of grasslands and savannahs which have traditionally been neglected and dubbed as “wastelands” in Indian forest management, and to safeguard relatively lesser-known species-habitat systems such as in Kuno, Gandhisagar, Jawahar Sagar, Nauradehi, Madhav, Sitamata across Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Whether to piggyback upon the “charismatic” species idea to promote conservation is debatable, but there is no denying that public sentiment for certain species strongly bolsters ecosystem revivals.

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