Import of cheetahs to India could work
Dr Laurie Marker, founder and executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, issued the following statement regarding the Indian Supreme Court’s decision regarding the cheetah re-introduction project in India: “CCF is not a part of any of the negotiations or decisions being made on the Indian side and therefore we can only continue to provide advice and support, as we have thus far.” The Indian government and Dr M.K Ranjitsinh, who served as the Indian government’s first director of Wildlife and now chairman of the Wild Trust of India (WTI), planned to reintroduce cheetahs in stages over the next decade.
To this effect, a team of experts including representatives from the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), Cheetah OutReach, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Cat Specialist Group, Re-introduction Specialist Group and Veterinary Specialist Group, and Oxford University’s WILDCRU, met in 2009 with Indian authorities and forestry directors from various regions.
A report of these meetings concluded that: “With the establishment of a network of protected areas, implementation of effective wildlife legislation and a dramatic change in the conservation ethos and awareness in the country inter alia, the original cause for the extinction of the cheetah in India has been adequately addressed.”
Careful consideration of the genetics of the Asiatic cheetah and its only remaining population found in Iran (less than 100) led to the conclusion that the cheetahs participating in this project should be imported from southern Africa, where the largest populations of wild cheetah still exist. Furthermore, the fact that the Asiatic and African cheetahs are genetically so similar, according to cat specialists including world renowned geneticist Dr Stephen O’Brien, and that there are no living Indian cheetahs, there is no concern about mixing populations.
Field inspections by the Indian research team determined that the most viable release area for the first re-introduction is the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, a 6800 square kilometre reserve in central India. The sanctuary was chosen as it is home to many species, including a variety of antelope, deer, wolves, and leopards. The absence of lions, the cheetah’s non-agressive nature, and work already done with the communities were also decisive factors. By returning cheetahs to a grasslands ecosystem where they used to thrive, the historic evolutionary balance would be restored and locally over-abundant prey species would be regulated; therefore a top-down effect of a large predator would enhance and maintain the diversity in lower trophic levels of the ecosystem, as explained in the group’s report.
In an advisory capacity, and in consultation with the re-introduction team, CCF has been working with the WTI and India’s authorities to discuss the best strategies for this re-introduction and providing its expertise based on proven successful programmes implemented in Namibia and other areas of Africa.
CCF believes that the project is sustainable to the extent that all recommendations made by the international consultants and Indian research teams are followed, and these include necessary infrastructure changes as well as community involvement and education. CCF advises that local communities be counselled in living harmoniously with wildlife, particularly predators, through training and communications programmes. To this effect, CCF emphasised the success of the conservancies in Namibia –which have become a model in conservation management where collaborative partnerships of neighbouring communities work together to develop and implement sustainable livestock and wildlife management systems.
Any cheetahs selected for the project will require permits from both the importing and exporting governments, as well as from Convention of International Trade for Endangered Species (CITES).