Cheetah reintroduction in India
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Reintroduction of the cheetah in India involves the artificial re-establishment of a population of cheetahs into areas where they had previously existed but were hunted into extinction by the British colonial officers and Indian royalty. A part of the reintroduction process is the identification and restoration of their former grassland scrub forest habitats. This is within the scope of the duties of the local forest department of each State, where relocation occurs, through the use of Indian Central Government funding.
Until the 20th century, the Asiatic cheetah was quite common and roamed all the way from Israel, the Arabian Peninsula to Iran, Afghanistan and India. In India, they ranged as far south as the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. The Asiatic cheetah, also known as the "hunting leopard" in India was kept by kings and princes to hunt gazelle; the Mughal emperor Akbar kept them for hunting gazelle and blackbucks. He was said to have had 1,000 cheetahs at one time for assisting in his royal hunts. Trapping of large numbers of adult Indian cheetahs, who had already learned hunting skills from wild mothers, for assisting in royal hunts is said to be another major cause of the species rapid decline in India as they never bred in captivity with only one record of a litter ever.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the species was already heading for extinction in many areas. The last physical evidence of the Asiatic cheetah in India was thought to be three, all shot by the Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Surguja State in 1947, in eastern Madhya Pradesh or northern Chhattisgarh, but a female was sighted in Koriya district, in what is now Chhattisgarh, in 1951.
...is in low, isolated, rocky hills, near the plains on which live antelopes, its principal prey. It also kills gazelles, nilgai, and, doubtless, occasionally deer and other animals. Instances also occur of sheep and goats being carried off by it, but it rarely molests domestic animals, and has not been known to attack men. Its mode of capturing its prey is to stalk up to within a moderate distance of between one to two hundred yards, taking advantage of inequalities of the ground, bushes, or other cover, and then to make a rush. Its speed for a short distance is remarkable far exceeding that of any other beast of prey, even of a greyhound or kangaroo-hound, for no dog can at first overtake an Indian antelope or a gazelle, either of which is quickly run down by C. jubatus, if the start does not exceed about two hundred yards. General McMaster saw a very fine hunting-leopard catch a black buck that had about that start within four hundred yards. It is probable that for a short distance the hunting-leopard is the swiftest of all mammals.— Blanford writing on the Asiatic Cheetah in India quoted by Lydekker
With the death of the last remaining population of the Asiatic cheetah in India, the species was declared extinct in India; it is the only animal in recorded history to become extinct from India due to unnatural causes. A consequence of the extinction of the cheetahs and subsequently the Indian royalty that prized them was that their grasslands homes came to be controlled, used and managed by local people. "The grasslands faded and diminished under the hooves of a thousand cattle, they were tilled and ploughed until only a few scattered remnants were preserved in the form of wildlife sanctuaries".
During the early 2000s, Indian scientists from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, proposed a plan to clone Asiatic cheetahs obtained from Iran. India requested Iran to transport one live pair to India. If not possible, Indian scientists requested Iran to allow them to collect some live cells of the cheetah pair in Iran itself, which can then be made into living cell lines.
However, Iran refused saying that it would neither send any cheetahs to India nor would they allow Indian scientists to collect their tissue samples. It is said that Iran wanted an Asiatic lion in exchange for a cheetah and that India was not willing to export any of its lions. In 2009, the Indian government contacted Iran again to explore the possibility of Iran supplying cheetahs to help to re-establish their presence on the subcontinent decades after they were hunted to extinction. The Iranian embassy in Delhi had said that its government was in the process of "arranging" talks.
Possible reintroduction sites
Currently, wildlife experts have shortlisted three regions which have the potential to support cheetah populations. The Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary and Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh and the Shahgarh bulge landscape in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan have been declared potentially suitable for the reintroduction of the cheetah. The Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh has the potential to hold populations of four of India's big cats; the Bengal tiger, Indian leopard, and Asiatic lion and cheetah, all four of which have co-existed in the same habitats historically for many years, before they were wiped out due to overhunting and habitat destruction. Since the Shahgarh Landscape is fenced along the Indo-Pakistani border region, the addition of more fencing will ensure adequate protection for the cheetah population. The Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary (1197km2) is part of a much larger forested landscape (5500km2 ) which can host the cheetah as well.
At a future date, when sufficient population has built up, other former range habitats in India (after revitalizing them) may also be considered for reintroduction like the Banni grasslands and Desert National Park etc.
A few wildlife groups have suggested the Moyar river valley in Tamil Nadu's Satyamangalam FD, part of Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve as it is a pristine forest with flourishing population of prey and a good record of conservation. Frederick Augustus Nicholson, the then British Collector has reported to have shot a few individuals near Kothamangalam, Velamundi and Bolampatti (all in NBR). This region is on the leeward side of SW monsoon.
Genetic sub-species level differentiation
The Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) has, for a long time, been theoretically classified as a sub-species of the cheetah with the suffix "venaticus" applied at the end of its scientific binomial name Acinonyx jubatus. However, at a cheetah reintroduction workshop organised in India on 9 September 2009, Stephen J. O'Brien from Laboratory of Genomic Diversity of National Cancer Institute of the US who has in the past conducted numerous prestigious genetic studies - including those on Asiatic lions - said that according to the latest modern genetic studies, it was discovered that the Asiatic cheetah was, in fact, genetically identical to the African cheetah with which it had separated only about 5000 years ago. This was not enough time for a sub-species level differentiation; O'Brien said that in comparison the Asian and African lion subspecies were separated some 100,000 years ago, as was the African and Asian leopard subspecies 169,000 years ago. Cheetah expert Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund and other wildlife experts advised the Indian Government that for reintroduction purposes India should source the cheetah from Africa where they were much more numerous instead of trying to have some removed from the critically endangered low population of about 70 to 110 or so Asiatic cheetahs left in Iran.
India's Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, chief wildlife wardens of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, officials of the environment ministry, cheetah experts from across the globe including Laurie Marker from Cheetah Conservation Fund, representatives from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) including Yadvendradev Jhala, and IUCN, an international conservation NGO, among others, participated in a meeting about this issue.
Subsequently, in 2011, a much more detailed five-year genetic study involving gathering of DNA samples from the wild, zoos and museums in eight countries was published in Molecular Ecology (Journal) on 8 January 2011. This newer study concluded that African and Asiatic cheetahs were in reality genetically very distinct and had in fact separated 32,000 to 67,000 years ago. Sub-species level differentiation had taken place due to longer separation from the African population. The effect of this latest revelation on India's plan to reintroduce cheetahs to the country was left unknown.
Introduction of African cheetah
As the world's last Asiatic cheetah population in Iran is currently classified as critically endangered, with an estimated total of below 100, the cheetah experts felt that it would not be conducive to disturb it. India is therefore exploring an alternate plan of importing the South African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) from some African countries, such as in Namibia, where they are in greater abundance, with a view to breeding them in captivity, and then setting them free in protected, semi-arid habitats in India.
Since the Asiatic cheetah became extinct in India about half a century ago, suggestions to reestablish the cheetah in India have been ongoing. For this purpose a meeting of International cheetah experts was organized in Gajner, near Bikaner in the Indian state of Rajasthan during September 2009. As per the discussions held at the meeting cheetah experts from around the world favored importing South African cheetahs for the proposed reintroduction in India as against getting them from the world's last remnant population of the Asiatic cheetah, which is also called "Iranian cheetah," since it survives in Iran, where it is currently critically endangered, with the entire population estimated to be below 100. International experts including Laurie Marker of Cheetah Conservation Fund, credited with developing cheetah conservation programmes in a number of countries, including Iran, argues that the world's last Asiatic cheetah population in Iran is abysmally low to spare any individuals for reintroduction efforts in India. Stephen J O'Brien, world's leading conservation geneticist and Chief of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Cancer Institute, United States, has clarified that there is no significant genetic difference between the African and the Iran's Asiatic cheetah, as per genetic research carried out by him African and Indian cheetahs were only separated just some 5,000 years ago which is not enough for a sub-species level differentiation. "African and Asian cheetahs are similar in nature and have same genetic make-up. So India can have the animal from South Africa if it is not getting from Iran (which has already refused to part with its Asian cheetah)," noted the cheetah genetic expert Stephen J O Brien. At the meeting experts also identified South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and UAE as countries from where the cheetah could be imported for India. "About 5 to 10 animals annually have to be brought to India over a period of 5 to 10 years," recommended another working group, which was formed for exploring sourcing and translocation of the cheetah.
The Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India has approved the recommendation for a detailed survey of potential reintroduction sites in the four Indian states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, shortlisted during the consultative meeting. Three more Indian states Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra are being also considered. This survey will form the basis for the roadmap of reintroduction of cheetah in India, and will be carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII),.
The Ministry of forests and environment of India is now hammering out the details of the cheetah conservation plan. As a first step, a two-day seminar of technical experts on cheetahs was held in Gajner from 9 September 2009. Experts on cheetah, including Divyabhanusinh Chavda and M K Ranjitsinh presented their papers on how to go about bringing cheetahs to India.
The initial plans were to bring the cheetahs to Gajner Wildlife Sanctuary. "We want to set up a breeding ground for the cheetahs and Gajner seems to fit the bill perfectly. Thereafter, they will be transported to various states," he added.
India is also in talks with the Islamic Republic of Iran over the possibility of sending a pair of Asiatic cheetahs to India. The Iranian embassy in Delhi said that its government was in the process of "arranging" talks.
The Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh said that African cheetahs could be brought to India within three years having just returned from a trip to South Africa, one of the potential source-habitats of cheetahs to be moved to India.
The Wildlife Institute of India is spearheading the project, and will unveil a road map and destination for the African cheetahs – possible options are in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat – by the end of May.
Kuno Palpur and Nauradehi Sancturies in Madhya Pradesh and Shahgarh landscape in Jaisalmer in Rajasthan have been selected in by the Wildlife Institute of India as most suitable sites for the reintroduction project.
Plans on hold
As of May 2012 the Indian Supreme Court has put the project of importing cheetahs from Africa and reintroducing them in India on hold. Some Conservationists have been fighting a legal battle in Indian Supreme Court to get the Indian State Government of Gujarat to break its monopolizing of wild Asiatic lions and release a few overpopulated prides of lions spilling out of Gir National Park for reintroduction in the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the neighbouring Indian State of Madhya Pradesh which was prepared for them after relocating over 24 villages out of the forest. In the past, for last two decades the State Government of Gujarat had concocted every possible reason to maintain its monopoly on wild Asiatic lions and the tourism revenue generated by them and of recent Gujarat's legal council had put forward the argument that Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary is being used for the introduction of African cheetah which might take several years to fully settle down and repopulate the area and hence reintroduction of lions should only be done after that, this scared the conservationists that Gujarat will use this pretext to delay the reintroduction of native lions by many more decades using the cheetah argument. Indian Supreme court has taken note of the arguments put forth by some Indian conservationists that importing African cheetah for reintroduction in India is misguided as it is against the International Union for Conservation of Nature's reintroduction guidelines and no clearance had been sought from India's National Board for Wildlife. The Indian Supreme Court has put the project on hold till further notice asking for clearance from India's National Board for Wildlife, meantime it has fast tracked the case for the re-introduction of lions to Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary and is hearing it every Monday.
Senior advocate PS Narasimha, court-appointed adviser and the amicus curiae in the Asiatic lion's relocation case in India's Supreme Court, filed an application seeking a stay on the implementation of African cheetah reintroduction project in India. The Indian Supreme court granted the stay and the matter has been scheduled for further hearing in July 2012 after the court returns from vacation. During its hearings, the Bench was informed that India's Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has decided to introduce the South African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) from Namibia into Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, the same proposed habitat being developed as the second home for the translocation of lions from Gir Wildlife Sanctuary in the neighbouring Indian state of Gujarat which did not want to shift any lions out of the state. Narasimha said the proposal for reintroduction of African cheetah "has not been either placed before the Standing Committee of India's National Board for Wildlife, nor has there been a considered decision taken in this regard". He stated in an application 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 African cheetah in India 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. Therefore, it is not case of intentional movement of an organism into a part of its native range," the application stated. Asiatic cheetah became extinct in India in the 1950s, In the past, India's last recorded cheetah in the wild was said to have been shot in the Rewa area of Madhya Pradesh in the late 1940s. It was mentioned that the introduction of alien or exotic species is universally shunned by wildlife experts and "in fact countries such as South Africa, Australia are spending huge amount of funds to eradicate and remove exotic wildlife species from wilderness areas or wild habitats". Narasimha also sought a direction of India's Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to produce before the apex court all relevant records and decisions relating to introduction of cheetah. He said the Indian cheetah in genetic composition is a different animal than the African cheetah and a different sub species altogether and "therefore one cannot be introduced in place of the other". Conservationists say fewer than 100 of the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah subspecies remain only in Iran, roaming the central deserts. The vast majority of the 7,100 cheetahs left in the world are in Africa.
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- Video on Youtube: Movie 'Cheetahs in Iran; the last stronghold of the Asiatic cheetah. Uploaded by kohvasang on 31 October 2011. this movie shows how they find the cheetahs in desert of iran. A video report which shows how Iranians and an international team cooperate to save scattered Cheetahs in Iran.