Is the government’s cheetah programme sound?
First Published : 10 Dec 2010 11:13:00 PM IST
Do we want the cheetah back? If the Ministry of Environment and Forest’s (MoEF) ambitious programme for the reintroduction of this animal into the country is anything to go by, the question has already been answered. A recent assessment conducted by the MoEF, the Wildlife Institute of India and the Wildlife Trust of India has identified the Kuno-Palpur and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh and the Shahgarh Landscape in Jaisalmer for the introduction. An estimated `300 crore will be spent initially on the project and potential sources for the animals are also being explored. It’s quite likely that the cheetahs, if they come, will be either from Namibia or South Africa. The project has the whole-hearted support of the minister in charge, Jairam Ramesh and the ball for the cheetah’s return to India is clearly on the roll now.
There is a more fundamental question, however, that has no clear answers yet — why? Why do we want the cheetah back? The rationale provided has been two-fold. The first this is what Ramesh himself articulated sometime back — to regain a part of the lost glory and history of this country. The magnificent cheetah that was once a living, bounding part of this nation’s reality must be brought back. The other, as has been pointed by some wildlife experts, is that the cheetah, like the tiger, is the apex species of the grassland habitat and it’s presence would, both, indicate and ensure the health of this badly abused ecosystem.
Writing in the recent issue of the wildlife magazine Sanctuary Asia, M K Ranjitsinh, doyen of Indian wildlife conservation and a prime mover of the cheetah reintroduction project has argued that, “The cheetah restoration will be part of a prototype for restoration of original cheetah habitats and their biodiversity, helping to stem the degradation and rapid loss of biodiversity…” He also notes that re-introducing the cheetah will help to save other threatened grassland-scrub-open woodland species such as the caracal, Indian wolf, the desert cat, the Great Indian Bustard and the Lesser Florican.
Prima facie the arguments seem valid, but if looked at carefully, both have serious problems. It is certainly important to realise, for instance, that grassland habitats are extremely productive systems that are both undervalued and abused. They have to be protected and cared for and we have to find ways of doing it. Arguing, however, that we need an introduction from Africa to enable us to set our house in order is akin to putting the cart before the horse. There are far simpler and effective ways to do it if we have the common sense and political will for it. It is also an extremely unfortunate part of our history that this glorious animal was shot into extinction nearly six decades ago. The scarier reality is that many species of plants, birds and animals stand today on the verge of joining the cheetah into that void called extinction.
Flagship programmes — Project Tiger and Project Elephant, for instance, face serious challenges and some might even say that they are floundering. The most recent case of the death of the translocated tiger in Sariska Tiger Reserve is an excellent example of the many challenges that have to be faced. How prudent would it then be to get into something new without ensuring the success of what we already have on hand?
There is another worrisome aspect of the project that has come to light only recently. The introduction of the cheetah is going to be mounted on the back of displacement of people in the areas where the reintroduction is being planned.
Eighty seasonally used human settlements of 5-10 households each will have to be relocated from the Shahgarh landscape and 23 human settlements will have to be moved from the Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary. Three will also be moved from Kuno Palpur in addition to the 23 that were moved a few years ago for the reintroduction of the lion from Gujarat.
Now, anyone who follows wildlife conservation in India knows that this landscape is littered with huge issues of conflict. Millions of people living in and around our protected areas face the sword of displacement or experience constant harassment and denial of basic livelihood resources in the name of wildlife conservation. Not surprisingly there is considerable opposition to wildlife conservation by local communities and there are many such fires burning in different parts of the country. Our job should be to work towards extinguishing these fires, not lighting up one more for an animal we didn’t have the wisdom to save when we had it in our midst. Rather than spending huge amounts of time, human resources, energy and money towards an ‘esoteric’ bringing back of the ‘dead’, the effort has to be concentrated on preventing it happening again — with other species. That would be a far more worthwhile and valuable endeavour. We can’t undo the extinctions we have caused already. Let the fate of cheetah be a grim pointer to that reality.