Co-existence of cheetahs and Asiatic lions in Madhya Pradesh's Kuno-Palpur and unavailability of Asiatic Cheetahs had hampered the project
African Cheetah from Namibia can be introduced in India, the Supreme Court said on January 28, 2020.
The apex court had earlier stayed any such relocation, stating that there was no scientific study to show that re-introduction of cheetahs and lions in Madhya Pradesh's Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary would be successful.
Cheetahs went extinct in India once the ruler of an erstwhile princely state in Koriya, Chhattisgarh gunned down the last last three Asiatic cheetahs in 1947. Some though reported spotting a female cheetah in 1951.
The issue hit a roadblock in 2013 due to opposition by the Gujarat government. Kuno-Palpur, the chosen site, was also identified for the relocation of the Asiatic Lion, the government said.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) moved a petition the same year to re-introduce cheetah. “It has taken so long to get the court to allow the re-introduction of the cheetah,” said MK Ranjitsinh, the head of a court-appointed committee to help NTCA.
“The court was misinformed and there is no evidence that the cheetah and lion cannot co-exist together,” added Ranjitsinh, the architect of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.
The Union government earlier tried to procure Asiatic cheetahs for the re-introduction, but was unable to get them. Asiatic Cheetahs are found only in Iran now, that too a few.
“There are very few Asiatic cheetahs left in the world and therefore we could not get them from anywhere. Moreover, under the guidelines of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), foreign species cannot be introduced. But DNA tests of the African Cheetah from Namibia have found that the species’ DNA is 89 per cent similar to the Asiatic Cheetah. This order shows that the court is convinced of this,” said Ajay Dubey, a wildlife activist working on relocation issues related to big cats.
Former prime minister Indira Gandhi had signed an agreement with Iran to exchange Asiatic lions for Asiatic cheetahs in the late 1970s. At the time, there were around 250 Asiatic cheetahs in Iran. Now, there are only around 28.
“We have the expertise to make this re-introduction process a success. Rather than getting Asiatic Cheetahs from Iran, we should help Iran improve their cheetah population,” Ranjitsinh said.
The court has now asked NTCA to conduct a survey to find a new site for the re-introduction to reassess the potential of Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary and also see if there are any sites which might prove to be better. The court has asked NTCA to submit reports every four months.
“Cheetah is a flagship species of a highly endangered ecosystem of the country — the grasslands. Cheetah is also the only species to go extinct in peninsular India in historical times. I’d say that we could not save the cheetah earlier, but if we allow any other species to go extinct now, it will be because we allow it to happen,” Ranjitsinh said.
Among those who commented after the apex court's decision was former environment minister, Jairam Ramesh:
Delighted that Supreme Court has just given OK to reintroducing cheetah from Namibia. This was something I had initiated 10 years ago. Cheetah which derives from the Sanskrit 'chitra' (speckled) is the only mammal hunted to extinction in modern India.— Jairam Ramesh (@Jairam_Ramesh) January 28, 2020
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