Inside the controversial plan to reintroduce cheetahs to India

Inside the controversial plan to reintroduce cheetahs to India

Published September 13, 2022

20 min read

Even as a student, Yadvendradev Jhala dreamed of the day when cheetahs would once again roam India. The big cats formerly shared the landscape with tigers, leopards, lions and wolves, but they disappeared 70 years ago as human development and hunting ramped up.

“This is the only large animal that we have lost in independent India,” says Jhala, dean of the Wildlife Institute of India. “I’ve always been interested in reintroducing cheetahs to India.”

If all goes according to plan, Jhala could soon see that vision become a reality. Eight cheetahs are scheduled to arrive in India from Namibia later this month, in celebration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s birthday on September 17, and 12 more are due from South Africa around October 10. After undergoing a month-long quarantine, they will be released in Kuno National Park, a 289-square-mile protected area about 200 miles south of Delhi.

Proponents of the project say the cheetahs’ presence will strengthen both conservation efforts and the local economy. The cheetah, a magnificent animal that is a magnet for ecotourism, is Jhala’s opinion. “If you bring in cheetah, the government will put funds into rehabilitating and rewilding these systems, and all the biodiversity will thrive.”

The project will also potentially be a boon for the species overall: Only around 7,100 cheetahs remain in the wild today, and Jhala and others say that adding India back as a range state will help grow the big cat’s numbers. The subspecies of Asiatic cheetahs that once lived in India are now only found in a small number of people in Iran.

Some experts argue that the reintroduction plan may be premature. They warn that any cheetahs allowed to enter the park will soon wander outside of its boundaries. If they do, the big cats will be killed by dogs or people and starve.

“I’m not against the project, I’m against this very tunnel vision thing of just bringing cheetahs and dumping them in the middle of India where there are 360 people per square kilometer,” says Ullas Karanth, emeritus director for the nonprofit Center for Wildlife Studies and a specialist in large carnivores. “It’s putting the cart before the horse.”

“There’s not any chance for free-ranging cheetah populations now,” adds Arjun Gopalaswamy, an independent conservation scientist who has conducted research on big cats in Africa and India. Cheetahs in India “perished for a reason,” he says, and that reason–human pressure–has only gotten worse in the 70 years since the species disappeared. “So the first question is, Why is this attempt even being made?”

Jhala counters, however, that this type of outlook is too focused on the “nitty gritty” details rather than the larger good that cheetahs can bring to India, such as boosting investment and protection in ecosystems that support the big cats, and building up local economies.

“It’s a restoration and rewilding project for the planet,” he says. “I don’t see anything that can be a contradiction to such a noble goal.”

Decades-long dream

Like many predators, cheetahs today occupy only a fraction of their historic range. A little over a century ago, they prowled the grasslands and open forests of much of Africa, Arabia, and India. Cheetahs are gentler than other big cat species and were used in India by the royals for hunting. They are the feline equivalent to falcons or dogs.

By the mid-19th century, India’s cheetah numbers had severely dwindled–to the point that they were having to be imported from Africa for hunting. While some had been captured or killed for sport, most of the decline was due to the increasing human population. People retaliated against big cats for killing sheep and goats, and dogs attacked cheetah adults and cubs. In 1947, the Maharaja of Korawi shot three cheetahs–likely the last definitive sighting of the species in India. (See why cheetahs are at risk–and how people are protecting them. )

By 1952, Indian politicians and scientists were calling for a “bold experimentation to preserve the cheetah,” according to records from the country’s first wildlife board meeting. Indian officials came close to reintroducing cheetahs in the 1970s by negotiating to exchange some of India’s lions for Iran’s cheetahs, but the deal fell apart in the lead-up to the Iranian Revolution.

In 2009, the idea was revived, and eventually greenlit, when India organized a closed meeting of officials and scientists to discuss bringing cheetahs back. The proposal was to reintroduce the species to restore an ecological niche that is currently vacant. Leopards, tigers and lions attack their prey, attacking the nearest animal to them, regardless its fitness level. Cheetahs are known for picking off the weakest animals. Proponents claim that this type of predation has been missing in India since the disappearance of cheetahs. It helps to keep prey populations healthy and weed out the sickest. (Read more about how cheetahs hunt. )

Even in 2009, though, not everyone was in favor of moving forward. “Some of us pointed it out that it’sn’t ecologically viable,” recalls Karanth. He says he was not invited to the meeting because he criticised the plan.

“But there are some conservationists who have really been pushing this, and they convinced the previous environment minister that he’ll become very famous if he brings the cheetah back.”

“It’s very difficult to understand the motivation for this project from a scientific point of view,” adds Gopalaswamy. “But from an attention-seeking point of view, I can see a lot of sense.”

Jhala counters that the project is being driven by more than just public relations, but “whatever the motives may be, it doesn’t matter as long as conservation is happening on the ground.”

Tasked with identifying sites for a possible reintroduction, Jhala and colleagues honed in on Kuno, and by 2012, negotiations were underway with Namibia to import a first batch of cheetahs. But then, the Indian Supreme Court intervened, passing a judgment stating that Kuno should be prioritized for reintroducing Asiatic lions rather than cheetahs, and that any cheetahs eventually brought to India should come from Iran, not Africa. The judgement was not possible to implement. Only around 600 Asiatic lions remain in India, all of which live in just one state, Gujarat. Experts agree that the species is at risk of extinction if all the lions are in one place. It would be prudent to expand their range into other parts.

But, Karanth claims that the politicians of Gujarat refused to relinquish their monopoly over the species and share lions among other states in “Indian style”. The Gujarat Forest Department didn’t respond to a request to comment.

Lions were out for Kuno, and reintroducing Iranian cheetahs to the park was also a dead end. The 30 or so wild Asiatic cheetahs in Iran will likely be extinct soon, not least because Iran’s six leading cheetah scientists were jailed in 2016 on charges of spying.

For the reintroduction plan, then, it would be African cheetahs or nothing. In 2020, the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the government group tasked with managing India’s tigers, petitioned the Supreme Court for permission to move forward with the estimated $28 million plan to bring African cheetahs to India. The court granted permission. It seemed that India would finally see cheetahs after decades of struggle.

Cheetah “control tower”

When Jhala reached out to Vincent van der Merwe, a South African cheetah conservationist, about the possibility of sourcing cheetahs from South Africa, van der Merwe enthusiastically agreed to collaborate. He said that it was a very prestigious project. “Cheetahs used to be in India, and they should be back in India.”

At the time, van der Merwe worked for the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South African nonprofit, where he ran the Cheetah Metapopulation Project. The project was created to help cheetahs survive in an environment that is too human-dominated. In large, unfenced protected areas like Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, cheetahs maintain home ranges of up to 386 square miles and occur at low densities of just one or two animals per 40 square miles.

In most places in South Africa, however, development stands in the way of the species’ natural dispersal, and heavily managed, fenced reserves paid for by tourism–which van der Merwe calls “the fortress approach” to conservation–has been the “secret to success,” he says. “If it’s not fenced, they don’t reproduce and they move out.”

Van der Merwe’s job entails moving cheetahs from one place to another to replace individuals that die and to ensure healthy gene flow. He says, “I’m like the control tower.” From 2011 to 2022, he helped grow the Cheetah Metapopulation Project from 217 cheetahs on 40 reserves to 504 cheetahs on 69 reserves.

For van der Merwe, who is also a National Geographic Explorer, expanding the project to India was a chance to build on those successes. It was also a solution for the never-ending problem of how to deal with excess cheetahs that have been born in reserves or wander onto farms. “People are calling me all the time saying that there are too many cheetahs in this area,” he said. “I’m under constant pressure to move animals.”

As van der Merwe quickly learned, however, even in Africa, “the conservation community is very divided by this reintroduction.”

Van der Merwe had originally hoped to source a few cheetahs for the India project from Liwonde National Park in Malawi, where he and his colleagues reintroduced the species in 2017. He says that Malawi is very lush and bears a striking resemblance with India.

But he soon ran into opposition from conservationists and decided to resign in July from the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Van der Merwe created his own nonprofit, Metapopulation Initiative to continue his cheetah research and collaborate with Jhala, his colleagues, and others. He says, “I wanted to be able to manage my own project and expand as needed.”

“Worth the risk”

Van der Merwe was particular about the 12 South African cheetahs he selected to be the founding population for India, choosing animals that were born in the wild, grew up alongside other predators, and were accustomed to humans monitoring them by foot or vehicle. The original plan was for eight cheetahs from Namibia to travel to India in August. The date has been rescheduled several times. The relocation is now tentatively set for mid-September for Namibian cheetahs, and October for South African ones (the South African government still has to approve the project). If all goes according to plan, the 20 cheetahs will stay in a fenced area at Kuno for a month or so before being released into the park. Van der Merwe states that every cheetah will be on his own when the gates are opened.

Once released however, the big cats will almost certainly leave the unfenced park. “And then they’ll have an hell of a problem,” Karanth said. “The cheetahs will get trashed and killed very quickly because there’s nothing outside of Kuno–it’s villages, dogs, and farms.”

S.P. Yadav, the additional director general of India’s Tiger Authority, points out that all of the cheetahs will be equipped with tracking collars and monitored 24-7. He says, “So if the cheetahs leave, we’ll bring them home.”

Communities surrounding the park are on board with the reintroduction plan, he adds, because the cheetahs are expected to bring an influx of tourist dollars. Yadav states that they “expect a turnaround in economy.”

However, van der Merwe did not dispute Karanth’s prediction. He says, “We’ll lose an enormous amount of animals, this is what we know.”

Given this likelihood, he continues, the focus in India should be on the long-term plan to regularly supply cheetahs from Africa until the species gets a foothold–a goal that will require a minimum of 500 to a thousand individuals. If India is able to establish a cheetah colony, then the country’s cheetah population will need to be managed well. Animals will be exchanged between reserves and continents.

Gopalaswamy, however, criticizes this approach as being unsustainable. He says that this type of stop-gap arrangement involves a very costly and complicated process of constantly translocating individual animals, essentially trying mimic nature.” “In my view, it’s quite distant from what cheetah conservation is all about.”

But to van der Merwe, it’s simply the reality of wildlife conservation today. He points out that there are no large open spaces for wildlife to roam free in most places. Therefore, intensive management is the only way to keep large predators there. He believes that these first reintroductions to India have the potential for opening doors for cheetah conservation efforts and to create significantly more safe space for the species. “Of course, there is a very real risk of failure, but I feel it’s worth the risk.”

As for Jhala, he’s heard no opposition to the project from Indian politicians or the public–only from fellow conservationists. He says conservationists are the worst enemies of conservation. “Once it’s done and people see the success of it, I think all of them will come around.”

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