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Cheetah Reintroduction Project in India
Apr 26, 2014

Cheetah, which became extinct from the country about seven decades back, may find a home in India if the Supreme Court allows for ambitious Cheetah Re-introduction Project. The government moved the court yet again recently with an assertive petition to let them go ahead with the plan in the interest of wildlife conservation. 

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), under the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF), filed a fresh plea, demanding a reconsideration of the court’s order on April 15, 2013. By this order, the court had quashed the MoEF’s decision to introduce African cheetahs in Kuno Palpur sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, after noting no detailed study had been conducted before introducing a foreign species to India and the designated expert body had also not been consulted. The project initiated by the MoEF in 2010 aimed to bring the cheetah, which became extinct from India’s forests in 1952.

Asking for a recall of this order, the NTCA disputed the court’s observations and claimed that wildlife agencies had carried out comprehensive studies and analysis of not only Kuno but other prospective areas where cheetah could be re-introduced. Cheetah is the only mammalian species to have gone extinct in peninsular India in historial times and bringing it back will have special significance for the national conservation ethic and ethos. Cheetahs are likely to present the lowest level of conflict with human interests and their re-introduction would help conservation of grasslands and open forests in the manner tiger conservation did. Maintaining that Kuno was found to be most appropriate owing to improved habitat status after relocation of 24 villages, the MoEF cited historical accounts from the Mughal Empire, penned by historian Dr. Irfan Habib, to claim that cheetah occupied areas in MP, making it a historial habitat for them. The government also countered the court’s findings that the proposal was not placed before the National Board for Wildlife and further, it was not in conformity with international conventions. It said one of the members of the Board had in fact termed the re-introduction plan as the most exciting venture to happen in the wildlife conservation sector while no other member raised any objection.

The petition opposed court’s observation, pointing out cheetah was not a foreign species. On the issue of its preparedness, the MoEF said that the National Wildlife Action Plan 2002 did not mention this proposal since the techniques of re-introduction and rehabilitation of carnivores were not adequately developed at that point in time. It was only with the success of the reintroduction of the tiger in Sariska, Panna and elsewhere that the confidence of undertaking such endeavours emerged. 

In May, 2012 the Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the Cheetah Reintroduction Programme by which the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had proposed to import the African large-sized feline to India.  A forest bench comprising justices K.S. Radhakrishan and C.K. Prasad restrained the government from going ahead with the Rs. 300 crore project in the wake of questions being raised that a totally misconceived venture was pushed without consulting that National Board for Wildlife (NBW) which is a statutory body for the enforcement of the wildlife law. 

The issue of relocating Cheetah from Namibia was raised during the hearing of the matter on reintroduction of Asiatic Lions from Gujarat’s Gir National Park and Sanctuary and surrounding areas to Palpur Kuno Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh pursuant to a decision taken by the NBW. The bench was informed that the MoEF has decided to introduce African Cheetahs from Namibia. It was told to the court that scientific studies show that the African Cheetahs and Asian Cheetahs are completely different, both genetically and also in their characteristics and the reintroduction of Cheetah was also against the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines on translocation of wildlife species. In fact, the IUCN guidelines categorically warn against the introduction of alien or exotic species. The African Cheetah obviously never existed in India.  

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