Considered a weak carnivore when confronted with a predator, its survival in the wild may prove to be a challenge in the light of landscape differences and prey alternatives. But then, rehabilitation programmes for species like gharial, crocodiles, and rhinoceros have been successful in the past. Taking a cue from this, a wait-and-watch approach will be most appropriate then?
It was a historical moment when India welcomed eight cheetahs under an agreement signed earlier this year between India and Namibia. A tiger-faced B747 Jumbo jet was used to ferry the cheetahs from Namibia. They were later introduced into Madhya Pradesh's Kuno-Palpur National Park (KPNP) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his birthday, September 17. It may be mentioned here that dubbed as the world's biggest wildlife translocation project, this project is a part of the prime minister's efforts to revitalise and diversify the country's wildlife and habitat. Out of the eight big cats, five are female and three are male, including a female cheetah and two brothers who hunt together as a team. While the females are aged between two and five years, the male cheetahs are 4.5 years and 5.5 years old. These cheetahs were selected based on an assessment of health, wild disposition, hunting skills, and ability to contribute genetics that will result in a strong founder population.
The Asiatic cheetah was declared extinct in India in 1952 after Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo shot the last offspring of the species in 1947. As per the High Commission to Namibia, this re-introduction of cheetahs to India has special significance for our country as we mark the 75th Year of Independence.
“Project Cheetah”: Road so far
Project Cheetah aims to bring back independent India’s only extinct large mammal – the cheetah. As part of the project, 50 cheetahs will be introduced in various National Parks over five years. This will be the world’s first trans-continental Cheetah translocation project at Kuno wildlife sanctuary in Sheopur district, Madhya Pradesh. Agreement on Wildlife Conservation and Sustainable Biodiversity Utilization was signed between India and Namibia with a focus on wildlife conservation. India was to get eight Cheetahs in two batches of four. The current position as of now is that out of the eight cheetahs, three have been rejected by India on the ground that the animals were bred in captivity and would not be able to hunt. Namibia on its part has also denied the intention of replacing them and also not to provide any wild cats further, since its population of the species is limited.
The name ‘Cheetah’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Chitra’, which is derived from its black-spotted coat that resembles a chitra or a picture. This majestic, carnivorous mammal is known as the fastest animal on the earth clocking 120 km/hr while chasing its prey. There is pride associated with the animal and is also a reminder of its extinction during colonial subjugation, and the resultant exploitation of India’s resources. Reasons for extinction include excessive hunting for the ‘game’, destruction of habitat and human intervention. Asiatic cheetah was, finally, declared extinct in 1952. The last Indian Cheetah died around 1948. In India, over the years, cheetahs were brought and kept in zoos. Previously, India tried to procure Asiatic Cheetah from Iran, in the 1970s under the Shah of Iran, but the Iranian Revolution halted the efforts. Thereafter idea was revived in 2009 under Jairam Ramesh. However, Iran was reluctant to lose the “exclusive” tag of being the last home for the Asiatic Cheetah. Upon further approach, Iran proposed a quid pro quo of a pair of Asiatic Cheetah for a pair of the Asiatic lion but India too was not ready to lose the “exclusivity tag” as the last home of the Asiatic Lion at Gir (Gujarat) .
Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, as part of the meeting of cheetah experts in 2009, and other cheetah experts argued for the introduction of the Southeast African cheetah, given these hurdles. The meeting also identified Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, and the UAE as countries from where the cheetah could be imported to India. In 2012, the top court stalled the project for the re-introduction of foreign cheetahs in the Kuno-Palpur wildlife sanctuary, fearing their conflict with another project to reintroduce the lions into the same area. In January 2020 the Supreme Court directed NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority) to introduce African cheetahs into the Indian habitats. The CCMB had, separately, initiated the project to clone Indian Cheetah, but this is yet to bear fruit. There are around 6700 cats left in the wild, mostly in Africa. Being the mildest of the wild cats, cheetah needs special attention and care.
From the 10 potential sites evaluated for the feasibility of establishing cheetah populations in India based on IUCN guidelines for reintroductions that consider species viability based on demography, genetics, and socio-economics of conflict and livelihoods (Ranjitsinh & Jhala 2010), Kuno NP in the state of Madhya Pradesh was considered ready for receiving cheetah with the least management interventions. This place has the potential to hold populations of four of India's big cats: the Bengal Tiger, Indian Leopard, Asiatic Lion, and Asiatic Cheetah- all four of which have coexisted in the same habitats historically for many years, before they were wiped out, in part or in whole. The other sites recommended for holding and conservation breeding of cheetah in India, in controlled wild conditions are Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary (1,197 sq. km, habitat 5,500 sq. km), Madhya Pradesh; Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary – Bhainsrorgarh Wildlife Sanctuary complex (~2500 sq. km), Madhya Pradesh; Shahgarh bulge in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan (4,220 sq. km) ; Mukundara Tiger Reserve as fenced enclosure (~80 sq. km), Rajasthan.
Feasibility of the project as per experts
Dr Amita Kannaujia, professor of zoology, Lucknow University, takes an optimistic perspective of Project Cheetah. “Project Cheetah is being undertaken after a long study. Also, there was a previously known population of Asiatic cheetah in Indian subcontinent. Already rehabilitation programmes have been undertaken for species like gharial, crocodiles and rhinoceros. Taking a cue from this, the project could also be successful. Cheetah is not a lost species but exists today albeit not in the Indian subcontinent and it has only been seventy years since its complete absence here. Bringing in a mammalian species like cheetah should be experimented in the wild. Though mammals have not been known to migrate across continents, avian species have been undertaking intercontinental migration almost annually. There has been no genetic spillover or catastrophic outcomes. This experiment is being conducted in predator enclosures, and if promising results come, it will be expanded. A wait and watch approach be adopted, until then.”
Prem Chandra Pandey, former project head, Wildlife Trust of India, is however critical of this Cheetah re-introduction programme. “At a micro level, this exotic species introduction of African Cheetah may not be well suited. Cheetah may well be known for being the top predator and its fast speed but, in the wild, it is a weak animal vis-à-vis, other predators. It tends to leave its prey when confronted by a pack of Hyenas, this is also due to its trust on its prey capabilities. In this context, potential sites like Mukundra hills Tiger Reserve need to be dog-proof. And this exercise might become a routine one as dogs, and the versatile top-predator competitor the leopard, are more flexible in terms of survival compared to Cheetah. A previous programme of Neyyar Lion Safari failed terribly with the death of all lions. This was a much-localised relocation compared to intercontinental relocation of totally different species like African Cheetah.”
Dr Asad Rahmani, former director of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) supports Project Cheetah with a scientific rationale that IUCN has also recommended that if a subspecies have become extinct, related subspecies can be re-introduced. And therefore, innovative measures for wildlife conservation must be experimented with, if cheetah can revive interest in grassland and grassland-dependent species.
As per Professor Pooja Kala, assistant professor, Graphic Era Hill University (Dehradun): “A cheetah is a carnivore that has lived on the African grassland for years and had a different set of wild counterparts like hyenas, lions, etc in Africa. While in India they have to meet an altogether different category of wildlife like bears, wolves, etc. This will prove to be a challenge, also keeping in purview landscape differences and prey alternatives.”
The “umbrella” conservation approach
In the face of limited funding, knowledge, and time for action, conservation efforts often rely on shortcuts for the maintenance of biodiversity. The umbrella species concept is proposed as a way to use species requirements as a basis for conservation planning. An umbrella species is defined as a species whose conservation is expected to confer protection to a large number of naturally co-occurring species (the umbrella effect). Among the species suggested as potential umbrellas, most are large mammals and birds, but invertebrates are increasingly being considered. For Example, tiger conservation in Corbett accords protection to barking deer, spotted deer, sambar, and chinkara. The tiger has served as the flagship and umbrella species for forest ecosystems, the cheetah will fill this void in the open forest, savanna, and grassland habitats. In saving it, one would have to save not only its prey-base comprising certain threatened species, but also other endangered species of the grasslands/ open forest ecosystems, some of which are on the brink of extinction. Amongst these are the caracal (Caracal caracal), the Indian wolf (Canis lupus pallipes), the lesser florican (Sypheotides indica) ,etc.
The grassland/ open forest-dependent species, both avifaunal and faunal, have suffered a more drastic decline than any other species adapted to other biomes, simply because these habitats have undergone the most qualitative and quantitative decimation of all ecotypes in the sub-continent. Additionally, they are generally considered a wasteland and a blank by India’s state forest departments. As nearly all the productive grasslands have been converted into croplands, historically the principal prey of the cheetah in these habitats, the blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra), is also living a very precarious life due to its conflict with the agrarian communities. Cheetah restoration will be part of a prototype or model for the restoration of original cheetah habitats and their biodiversity. Among large carnivores, conflict with human interests is lowest for cheetahs, as they are not a threat to humans and usually do not attack large livestock.
Evaluations of umbrella species schemes have highlighted the limitation of single-species umbrellas that they cannot ensure the conservation of all co-occurring species because some species are inevitably limited by ecological factors that are not relevant to the umbrella species. On the other hand, multi-species strategies based on systematic selection procedures (e.g., the focal species approach) offer more compelling evidence of the usefulness of the concept. This concept can be utilised to experiment with more than a single top predator in a single ecological system. Alongside evaluations of umbrella species schemes could be improved by including measures of population viability and data from many years, as well as by comparing the efficiency of the proposed scheme with alternative management strategies.
Exotic-native species struggle
Experts argue that the cheetah today in India is an exotic species. There are very few cheetahs left in the world and the species may not be able to adjust here. Prem Chand Pandey suggests that the debate around the feasibility of Project Cheetah in the light of exotic-native species' struggles be dealt with on a wider scale and at multiple levels. “Huge funding being made for the project should instead be re-routed towards the conservation of other small, yet vital animals like turtles, monitor lizards, or pangolins. Funding capacity-building programmes for forest departments in sync with rising challenges of hi-tech wildlife crime related to smuggling exotic animals, poaching, etc, and conflict. The forest department focuses majorly on the ‘animal’ in question and least on human interaction. There is more rhetoric and flagging, rather than real groundwork. Fieldwork has been compromised from the highest level of policy making to the lowest level of forest officials. This needs urgent attention. Carrying out awareness programmes for local communities which are most crucial for the conservation of a species locally, is also vital. There is a need for more political will and individual initiative than the allocation of resources, which are optimal but not rightly utilised. The role of media should also be brought under scrutiny which has demonized predator animals and played down the role of the forest department. This creates difficulty in obtaining the support of the local community in conservation efforts,” he points out.
An exotic species refers to a plant, animal, or microorganism species, which is introduced into an area where it does not occur naturally. Most of these exotic plants do not flourish in the wild. But some plants get adapted to the environmental and climate changes and reproduce to invade the wild areas as well. The Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula), purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma), voodoo lily (Amorphophallus spp.), and Sensitive Plant (Mimosa pudica) are some examples of exotic plants. As mentioned above, exotic species can also include animals. Exotic animals such as cows, pigs, chickens, pigeons, mute swans, cats, dogs, and horses are mostly domesticated. An invasive species also refers to an exotic species whose introduction causes environmental and economic harm to the ecosystem. This means significant modifications or disruptions may be caused to the ecosystem by an invasive species. The arrival of invasive species may occur by natural processes. But, most of these species are introduced to the ecosystems by humans. Invasive species consist of characteristics such as fast growth, rapid reproduction, high dispersal ability, phenotypic plasticity, and ecological competence.
The tropical American shrub lantana (Lantana camara), for instance, was introduced in India in the early 19th century as an ornamental plant; it now invades diverse terrestrial habitats including scrublands and forests. International travel and trade have helped numerous invasives hitch rides into new territories. Seeds or plant fragments can attach themselves to peoples’ clothes or accidentally come along with imports of goods. Parthenium (Parthenium hysterophorus, native to central and south America) is thought to have made its way into India through wheat imports from the United States in 1956. Ships carry aquatic organisms in their ballast water, while smaller boats may carry them on their propellers. Insects can get into the wood, shipping palettes, and crates that are shipped around the world. Some invasive species are intentionally or accidentally released pets. For example, Burmese pythons are becoming a big problem in the Everglades. Invasive plants now occur on every continent on earth, including the remote and hostile ecosystems of Antarctica.
A voluntary disclosure scheme announced by a central government advisory in June 2020 urged Indians to declare possession of any exotic live species, i.e., any animal or plant species moved away from their native region. By February 2021, the MoEF&CC had received disclosure applications from 32,645 Indians, from 25 states and five union territories. The scheme came in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a zoonotic disease that is likely to have jumped to humans from an intermediary wildlife host species, according to a World Health Organization study on the origins of COVID-19. Unregulated trade of exotic wildlife carries the risk of disease spread, say ministry officials and zoonoses scholars.
The broader picture
Invasive species sometimes thrive because there are no predators that hunt them in the new location. Brown tree snakes were accidentally brought to Guam, an island in the South Pacific, in the late 1940s. Animals in Guam did not hunt any snakes, but the island was filled with birds, rodents, and other small animals that the snakes hunt. The snakes quickly multiplied at the cost of local native variety. They are responsible for the extinction of nine of the island’s 11 forest-dwelling bird species. Dr Seema Javed, a senior environment journalist, points out: “Environmental impacts of non-native species include loss of native biodiversity due to preying upon native species, hybridization, changes to ecosystem function and changes in nutrient cycles and decreased water quality, etc. Apart from directly competing with native organisms for limited resources, invasive species reduce biodiversity in the area and alter habitats. This can result in huge economic impacts and fundamental disruptions of ecosystems.”
As many as 330 species are declared invasive out of more than 2,000 alien species in India and the costs of $127.3 billion as documented in the study come from only 10 of these 330 species, making India the second topmost invasion-cost bearing country after the United States. These costs are likely to be a “gross underrepresentation” of the actual costs based on the authors’ global analysis of 112 countries (Alok Bang).
Dr Seema Javed adds: “According to the World Conservation Union, invasive alien species are the second most significant threat to biodiversity, after habitat loss. In their new ecosystems, invasive alien species become predators, competitors, parasites, hybridizers, and diseases of our native and domesticated plants and animals. With the changing demographics of the country, each day and shrinking habitats of the cheetahs pose another significant threat to their survival.” She draws attention to an incident when a team of wildlife researchers had found the DNA samples of two Royal Bengal Tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) from Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh "polluted" by genes of the Siberian tiger. Surrounded by feline DNA fingerprints, Lalji Singh, former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, who led the research team, found the findings disturbing. "The genetic purity of the Indian tiger in Dudhwa will be lost," he warned, "and we will end up with a mixed-gene pool. The Royal Bengal is small and brilliant coloured-tawny, golden yellow, with dark stripes-and its fur sticks close to its body. This is just an example of what can happen if we mix the gene pool of wildlife.”
Even exotic species can have a limited yet harmful impact. Exotic animals such as cows, pigs, cats, and dogs that are mostly domesticated, can also become feral. The native plants are endangered by those feral exotic animals. Dr C S Daniel, assistant professor at the Lucknow Christian Degree College, says: “India has been at the receiving end. Like in the case of grain import into India from the West. Parthenium (Parthenium hysterophorus, native to central and south America) is thought to have made its way into India through wheat imports from the United States in 1956. The genetic variability vis-à-vis native variety proved detrimental as the former became dominant over the native variety, and wiped the native variety in the area. Similarly, fishes got introduced for the pet trade, etc. They competed with native species as they had no natural prey.”
Prof Amita Kannaujia of Lucknow University takes a measured stance on the issue since, “as far as the interaction between exotic and native varieties is concerned, it is possible in nature. Definitely, exotic species can become harmful and invasive for example Tilapia fish dominates other habitats wherever it is introduced. Grasses like Parthenium (Parthenium hysterophorus) and Lantana (Lantana Camara) breed vigorously and take over the habitat of native species. These are of greater concern and not all exotic species since in the longer run animals can adapt to changes in the environment.”
The way ahead
Dr Rahmani also recommends a cautious approach as far as “invasive” species are concerned. He adds: “Many invasive species such as vilayati babool (Prosopis juliflora) and water hyacinth (Eichornnia crassipes) were introduced in India more than 100 years ago, but now we know the negative impact of them, so we should prevent the introduction of any alien invasive species (AIS). I am for the total eradication of invasive species at least from protected areas.” Dr CS Daniel adds on a positive note that National Parks are now being demarcated in consideration of the fact that competition between exotic and native varieties does not eliminate the existence of the latter. He says: “Exotic varieties be brought up in separate habitats, not necessarily captively bred. They be observed by experts for over one or two generations. Till then pure progeny should have been obtained. This pure progeny, acclimatized to Indian conditions, can then be introduced in the wild.” As per Prem Chand Pandey: “On a broader level, this problem of invasive species can be dealt with by prioritizing the focus in this direction. A controlled programme including stringent checks on trade across the border. A technically enhanced force can also supplement the efforts”.
Indian legislations on “exotic” species
The trade in exotic species is on the rise in India as per the Smuggling in India Report 2019-20, while the trade in native species is prohibited by law i.e. The Wildlife Protection Act,1972. This dualism has led traders and smugglers to actively trade exotic animals and hank to meet the growing demand for exotic animals. Unfortunately, the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 is silent on trade in exotic species, leaving a gaping legal hole in India’s wildlife protection system. This is exploited by those involved at various levels of the wildlife trade supply chain.
An illustrative case is when in 2020, two persons were arrested in Assam after rare animals like kangaroos, macaws, and Aldabra tortoises were seized from them. Later they got bail from the Gauhati High Court. The court observed that since seized animals do not come under the purview of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the detention of the accused would not be permissible under Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 . India’s border with countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar witnesses a massive influx of smuggled exotic wild animals. In May, West Bengal’s forest officials rescued three kangaroos in the forests of Jalpaiguri district and recovered the carcass of another.
Unfortunately, despite being a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) agreement since 1976, India is still to extend robust legal protection to exotic animals including those listed in the CITES Appendices. Markets trading in live exotic wildlife are even operating online, and apprehending these illegal traders and poachers, and clamping down on pet shops has thus far been hugely unsuccessful. In India, the regulations on cross-border trade in wildlife for native and CITES-listed species are enforced largely only through the Customs Act, 1962, and Foreign Trade (Development and Regulation) Act, 1992. Thus, only those consignments which can be proven to have crossed international borders illegally can be charged with crimes. For every item of contraband seized, there are many more that pass by undetected into India, as there is no law governing the possession, trade, and breeding of exotic animals, says Tito Joseph, programme manager of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. And until 2020, there wasn’t any legal obligation for exotic animal owners without necessary permits to declare their ownership either. Hopefully, the government advisory for voluntary disclosure of exotic animals will be a positive start towards improving the regulation of their trade.