Wildlife & Biodiversity

A year of the cheetah in India: The exercise offers simple yet critical lessons

Value science, consult widely, listen carefully and experience transparency

By Ravi Chellam
Published: Saturday 16 September 2023
A cheetah being released in Kuno by PM Narendra Modi. Photo: @KunoNationalPrk / X, formerly Twitter

When I look back at that moment when Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the first cheetah into an enclosure in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park on September 17, 2022, the first thought that comes to my mind is amazement.

Amazement at how well we were able to transport these cats, which are known to be fairly fragile, over such a long distance and in the fine condition that they arrived.

But in that very same moment, I also felt a deep sense of disappointment at missed conservation opportunities and at the delay in implementing the 2013 Supreme Court order regarding the translocation of Asiatic lions from Gir to Kuno.

Conservation cannot afford these types of distractions and delays. So, it would have been ideal if the lions would have been translocated by 2014-15. Then, there would have been a thriving Asiatic lion population in Kuno by now which in no way stops us from introducing cheetahs from Africa.

I thus felt amazed at the act of transportation and introduction of these cheetahs. But in the larger context of conservation in India, I felt it was a distraction and a grave injustice done to the Asiatic lions.

According to the information available, all surviving cheetahs are currently in captivity in some form or the other. I am not sure if this can be termed as ‘progress’ at all for the project.

To me, having cheetahs in captivity 12 months after their arrival speaks about a lack of preparedness at various levels. It also tells me that we are, in a way, trifling with the lives of these individual cheetahs.

Where is then the question of achieving larger goals for wildlife conservation or conserving grassland species? It does not jell at all. The undeniable fact is that without adequate habitat, we really have no prospects of establishing a viable, free-ranging population of wild cheetahs. We put the cart before the horse and in a sense, the events that have played out is testimony to that.

The introduction of large carnivores is never simple or easy. But science has developed enormously. So has technology. Globally we have gained vast experience, knowledge and understanding regarding capture, translocation and monitoring techniques.

This corpus of knowledge and science should have been utilised and built upon in informing decision-making. But the cheetah project has not used the best of the available science and we are today, in a sense, facing the consequences of that.

In summation, this whole exercise offers some simple but critical lessons. The first is to value science. Do not disregard it. Second, consult widely. Especially with those who seem to hold views critical of the dominant narrative. Third, listen carefully to what the critics have to say. Review the basis for their criticism. There will be important lessons to learn from such an exercise.

Fourth, ensure transparency. This has mostly been a cloak-and-dagger act. There is literally no information coming out, especially in the last 6-8 weeks. We need systems which ensure constant consultation, communication and feedback. Projects like this one are what we all need to celebrate doing, whether we succeed or not. The very act of getting things done should be collaborative and cooperative and not be monopolised by one agency or the other.

Ravi Chellam, Ph.D., CEO, Metastring Foundation & Coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative spoke to Rajat Ghai. 

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