The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed the Centre to introduce the African cheetah to a suitable habitat in India, including Kuno Palpur in Madhya Pradesh, almost 10 years after the plan was envisaged by then environment minister Jairam Ramesh and put on hold by the apex court.
The court was hearing an application filed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) seeking permission for the introduction of the African cheetah from Namibia as the court is monitoring the government’s ambitious project.
The apex court had set up a three-member committee, comprising of former director of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), Ranjit Sinh, a retired Indian Forest Service officer, and having officials from the environment ministry to guide the NTCA in taking a decision on the issue.
A bench comprising Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justices B R Gavai and Surya Kant said the apex court will monitor the project and the committee will submit its report before it every four months.
The top court also said the decision for relocation of the African cheetah will be taken after a proper survey and the action of introduction of the animal will be left to the NTCA’s discretion. The cheetah will be introduced on an experimental basis in the best suitable habitat to see whether it can adapt to Indian conditions, the court said.
Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who envisaged the programme, welcomed the decision. “It is a momentous occasion,” he said, which has taken 10 years.
Ramesh said cheetah is the only mammal hunted to extinction in India in modern times and during his tenure a lot of work was done to make their introduction in wild feasible. Indian Forest Service officer, Parveen Kaswan, said that the last cheetah sighted in India was in 1952.
In 2010, the central government set up an expert panel for reintroducing the cheetah in India. This panel recommended that the home of the fastest animal in the world could be Kuno Palpur in Madhya Pradesh, Velavadar National Park in Gujarat and Tal Chapar sanctuary in Rajasthan. Kuno Palpur was also the place prepared by Madhya Pradesh to house Asiatic lions from Gujarat, till the latter refused to share its pride. Kuno Palpur was the preferred location for introduction of cheetah.
Wildlife activists had, however, claimed that none of these habitats were big enough to host cheetahs. Serengeti National Park in Tanzania has an area of 14,750 square kilometres brimming with prey base, while the Kruger National Park in South Africa is spread across 19,485 sq km, said a report submitted to the Supreme Court in 2018.
Compared to them, the proposed Indian wildlife habitats do not have an area of more than 1,000 sq km, and with much less prey base than the African homes of cheetahs; the cats need an antelope every third day to survive, the report by a wildlife expert appointed by the court said.
The report also dismissed claims made by the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII) that cheetahs could coexist with humans, survive on a low prey base and do not need vast grasslands. WII selected Kuno for reintroduction of the animal.
The report also said that the cheetahs’ reintroduction was not examined by the national board for wildlife in detail as claimed by the government. It added that the National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-2031) is also silent on it.
Delhi-based biologist Fayaz Khudsar, who had filed a petition in the SC against the NTCA’s cheetah project, said the plan hasn’t been thought through and claimed it is being pushed to fulfill the dream of a former Indian Forest Service officer. “We cannot translocate lions from Gir, who are dying because of canine distemper virus. But, we want cheetahs with which we have no experience,” Ravi Chellam, a Bangalore-based ecologist, had told HT earlier.
However, the SC order on Tuesday has revived the hope for cheetah re-introduction in India with Sinh, who had floated the idea to Ramesh, said he was confident that cheetahs from Africa can survive. “I will provide my best to ensure that cheetahs return to India,” he said, refusing to comment further saying he wants to study the SC order first.
Cheetahs roamed India’s grasslands till the 1950s when they were hunted to extinction from the country. Iran has a sub-species of the Asiatic cheetah but has refused to share them with India, forcing the government to look for African ones. The Asian and the African species separated between 30,000 and 60,000 years ago.
(With PTI Inputs)