The complexities of introducing African cheetahs to India.

GS Paper 3: Environment and conservation related issues.


  • The cheetah, which became extinct in India after Independence, is on its way back thanks to an action plan launched by the Union Government.
  • According to the proposal, around 50 of these huge cats will be brought in the next five years, originating from the African savannas, which are home to cheetahs, which are a threatened species in their own right.

What was the distribution of cheetahs in India? What were the habitats? 

  • Historically, Asiatic cheetahs were found in large numbers across India, especially in the southern states.
  • The existence of these creatures has been reported as far north as Punjab and as far south as the Tirunelveli area in southern Tamil Nadu, as well as in Gujarat and Rajasthan in the west and Bengal in the east. All the records come from a belt that runs from Gujarat to Odisha, passing through Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and the state of Uttar Pradesh.
  • The reports originate in southern Maharashtra and spread to sections of Karnataka, Telangana, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, among other places.
  • The cheetah has a wide range of distribution and could be found all throughout the Indian subcontinent. They were found in large numbers across the city. Similarly diversified, the cheetah’s habitat consisted primarily of open areas, with scrub forests, dry grasslands, savannas, and other arid and semi-arid environments being the most common. In India, the final records of cheetahs before their extinction come from the fringe habitats of sal woods in east-central India, which is not necessarily their favourite environment for the felines. In Iran, the last remaining population of wild Asiatic cheetahs can be found in hilly terrain, foothills, and rocky valleys within a desert ecosystem.
  • They can be found in the provinces of Yazd, Semnan, Esfahan, North Khorasan, South Khorasan, Khorasan Razavi, and Kerman, which are all located in the country’s southwest.
  • The present population of wild Asiatic cheetahs is estimated to be around 40 individuals, with 12 adult animals having been identified. They are found in extremely low concentrations throughout large expanses of land covering thousands of square kilometres.

What caused the extinction of cheetahs in India? When did they disappear? 

  • The presence of the cheetah in India has been documented in historical records since before the Common Era. It has been removed from the wild for centuries in order to be used as a blackbuck coursing animal, which has contributed significantly to the decrease of its population over time.
  • Cheetahs have been captured since the 1550s, according to historical records. Detailed records of its interactions with humans have been preserved since the 16th century, when the Mughals and other kingdoms in the Deccan began to record their observations of the creature.
  • The ultimate phase of its extinction, on the other hand, corresponded with the establishment of British colonial power.
  • In 1871, the British contributed to the plight of the species by announcing a premium on its head if it was killed. A combination of factors, including the consistent and widespread capture of cheetahs from the wild (both male and female) over centuries, the reduction of genetic heterogeneity in the wild as a result of a historical genetic bottleneck, the inability of the Asiatic cheetah to breed in captivity, ‘sport’ hunting, and finally bounty killings, have resulted in the extinction of the Asian cheetah in India.
  • In his half-century rule from 1556 to 1605, the Mughal Emperor Akbar is said to have housed 1,000 cheetahs in his menagerie and amassed as many as 9,000 cats in his collection. At least 16 cheetahs were said to have been part of the collection of Tipu Sultan of Mysore’s zoo as recently as 1799.
  • Cheetah populations were rapidly diminishing by the end of the 18th century, despite the fact that its prey base and habitat continued to exist for a long period of time. Even though it is reported that the last cheetahs were shot in India in 1947, there have been genuine tales of the cat sightings in the country up until about 1967.

What are the conservation objectives of introducing African cheetahs in India? Is it a priority for India? Is it cost effective? 

  • Based on the available evidence it is difficult to conclude that the decision to introduce the African cheetah in India is based on science. Science is being used as a legitimising tool for what seems to be a politically influenced conservation goal. This also in turn side-lines conservation priorities, an order of the Supreme Court, socio-economic constraints and academic rigour.
  • The issue calls for an open and informed debate.  Eminent biologist and administrator T.N. Khoshoo, first secretary of the Department of Environment, spoke out strongly against the cheetah project in 1995. “The reintroduction project was discussed threadbare during Indira Gandhi’s tenure and found to be an exercise in futility,” he said, pointing out that it was more important to conserve species that were still extant such as the lion and tiger, rather than trying to re-establish an extinct species that had little chance of surviving in a greatly transformed country. 
  • Mr. Khoshoo’s views are in sync with the 2013 order of the Supreme Court which quashed plans to introduce African cheetahs in India and more specifically at Kuno national park in Madhya Pradesh. 
  • The officially stated goal is: Establish viable cheetah metapopulation in India that allows the cheetah to perform its functional role as a top predator and to provide space for the expansion of the cheetah within its historical range thereby contributing to its global conservation efforts.
  •  African cheetahs are not required to perform the role of the top predator in these habitats when the site (Kuno) that they have identified already has a resident population of leopards, transient tigers and is also the site for the translocation of Asiatic lions as ordered by the Supreme Court of India in 2013.
  • In other open dry habitats in India there are species performing this role, e.g., wolf and caracal, both of which are highly endangered and need urgent conservation attention. Even the Government’s official estimate is expecting, at best only a few dozen cheetahs at a couple of sites (that too only after 15 years) which will require continuous and intensive management. Such a small number of cats at very few sites cannot meet the stated goal of performing its ecological function at any significant scale to have real on ground impact.
  •  Clearly, there are far more cost-effective, efficient, speedier and more inclusive ways to conserve grasslands and other open ecosystems of India.  Apart from establishing a cheetah population in India, the stated objectives include: To use the cheetah as a charismatic flagship and umbrella species to garner resources for restoring open forest and savanna systems that will benefit biodiversity and ecosystem services from these ecosystems. 
  • Asiatic lions and a variety of species already found in these ecosystems can very well perform this role and more. If the government is serious about restoration and protection of these habitats, it first needs to remove grasslands from the category of wastelands and prevent further degradation, fragmentation and destruction of these habitats.
  • Investing directly in science-based restoration and inclusive protection of these ecosystems will yield results much more quickly and sustainably than the introduction of African cheetahs.  Another goal is to enhance India’s capacity to sequester carbon through ecosystem restoration activities in cheetah conservation areas and thereby contribute towards the global climate change mitigation goals.
  • Experts contend that this objective does not require the introduction of African cheetahs, at a cost of ₹40 crore, with the attendant risks of diseases which haven’t really been dealt with.

What is the current status of project? What are the chances of it succeeding? 

  •  A team of government officials visited Namibia about a month ago to check the cheetahs that would be delivered to India, to evaluate the procedures, and to achieve an agreement on the transfer of the cats.
  • According to reports, Namibia is seeking India’s backing for the relaxation of the Convention on International Trading in Endangered Species (CITES) restriction on commercial trade in animal goods, including ivory. According to reports, a provision in the draught memorandum of agreement published by Namibia requires India to help Namibia in the area of “sustainable exploitation of wildlife.” Negotiations to finalise the Memorandum of Understanding are now underway, and it is anticipated to be finalised by the end of March.
  • A non-governmental organisation (NGO), rather than the Namibian government, has agreed to provide the cheetahs for the project.
  • Approximately three to five cheetahs are likely to be among the first batch of cats to be released in the wild, which is projected to arrive as early as May 2022 and be released in the wild by August 15. Given the numerous obstacles, particularly the lack of extensive areas spanning hundreds if not thousands of square kilometres with a sufficient density of suitable prey, it is highly unlikely that African cheetahs will ever be able to establish themselves in India as a truly wild and self-sustaining population.
  • This programme is likely to have unintended consequences, including the diversion of precious conservation resources, the diversion of attention away from legitimate conservation objectives, and a further delay in the relocation of lions to Kuno National Park.


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