Wildlife & Biodiversity

Subcontinent’s last cheetah was seen in 1997 in Balochistan: Divyabhanusinh at relaunch of seminal book

‘The story of India’s cheetahs’ was first published in 1995 and has more or less been the most exhaustive work on the cheetah in India  

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Thursday 04 May 2023
Subcontinent’s last cheetah was seen in 1997 in Balochistan: Divyabhanusinh at relaunch of seminal book
Divyabhanusinh speaks at the book launch. Photo: @WWFINDIA / Twitter Divyabhanusinh speaks at the book launch. Photo: @WWFINDIA / Twitter

The last cheetah in the Indian subcontinent was seen in 1997 in Balochistan province of Pakistan and not in 1947 in Central India, as is widely believed, Divyabhanusinh, author of The end of a trail: The cheetah in India, said in the national capital on May 3, 2023, as the book was relaunched after nearly three decades.

He added that the skin of another individual was also recovered at the time from Islamabad, the federal capital of Pakistan.

“A Russian scholar who was conducting research on the cheetahs of the world-famous Masai Mara National reserve in Kenya contacted me during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. She urged me to rewrite the book. Which I did,” Divyabhanusinh, a past president of the World Wide Fund for Nature-India (WWF-India) and also a member of the Government of India’s Cheetah Task Force for the animal’s reintroduction, told an enthralled audience at the WWF-India office at Lodhi Estate in New Delhi.

He said the new book, titled The story of India’s cheetahs, went to press in February this year. “It does not deal with the present programme as such. It does deal with the post-1952 journey of the cheetah in India,” he stated.

It has been widely believed that, in 1947, Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of the erstwhile Korea princely state (in today’s Chhattisgarh) saw three cheetahs while driving at night. The area is believed to be Ramgarh, in the northern part of Korea.

The three cheetahs were males and were possibly from the same litter. The Maharaja shot all three, who are believed to be the last cheetahs in India.

But Divyabhanusinh and his cousin, MK Ranjitsinh, the architect of the 1972 Wildlife (Protection) Act, who released the book, said 1997 was the actual date.

“The Maharaja of Korea’s son had written to me that he had seen cheetahs even after 1958. His letter is part of this new version,” said Ranjitsinh, who was India’s first director of wildlife protection and spearheaded the Cheetah Introduction Programme.

Oban, Asha and tigers

The question-and-answer session at the end of the event included questions on recent events surrounding the Centre’s efforts to establish the cheetah again in India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had released eight Namibian cheetahs into a boma in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park (KNP) on September 17, 2022, his 72nd birthday. One of them, Sasha, died of renal failure on March 28 this year.

On February 18, 2023, 12 cheetahs were brought from South Africa to Kuno. On April 23, one of them named Uday died of cardiac arrest. On March 29, Siyaya, a female from Namibia, gave birth to a litter of four cubs.

Other events have included two Namibian cheetahs named Oban and Asha straying away from KNP. Both had been the first cheetahs to be released into the wilds of KNP on March 11.

Oban, a male, wandered forth on two occasions from KNP in the past month — April 2 and April 16.

During the second attempt, he reached the Madhav National Park and was seen moving towards the Uttar Pradesh border. Asha was found missing on April 5. Both were brought back.

“Oban was the first cheetah to be released into the wild. Any cat looks for smells and sounds of its own kind. He may have wandered as he did not find other cheetahs. He may have been looking for a female,” Ranjitsinh said at the event when asked about Oban’s wanderings.

A media report on May 1 also stated that the pug marks of a tiger from Ranthambore had been found near the cheetahs’ enclosure in KNP.

“Historically, the Indian cheetah used to be found in all parts of the Bengal tiger’s range. Both species occupied certain ecological niches. There is only one record from Neemuch in Madhya Pradesh of a tiger having killed a cheetah,” Divyabhanusinh said.

Ranjitsinh alluded to sites across the Mughal Empire where cheetahs were caught to be tamed and used for coursing prey. “One of them was Sheopur near Kuno. What is now KNP used to host all four cats: Asiatic lions, Bengal tigers, Indian leopards and Asiatic cheetahs,” he said.

Both men said the cheetah project started by the Centre was the beginning and not the end. And both emphasised that the country should never let any species go extinct again.

Ranjitsinh enumerated ‘three types of extinction’. The first happened when India did not have the wherewithal to stop an animal from going extinct. “The cheetah falls in that category,” he said.

The second type of extinction happened when the country knew how to stop a species from vanishing but did not act on it. “The Malabar civet is an example. I hope the caracal is saved under the aegis of the cheetah project for it too is going that way,” Ranjitsinh said.

The last type of extinction, according to him, was driven by the very people enjoined by the Indian Constitution to protect wildlife. “If the Great Indian Bustard goes extinct, it will fall in this category,” said Ranjitsinh.

“The debate on the cheetah is not on the past but about it. We cannot change it. But we can learn from it. This book is a serious call to think about the past,” Mahesh Rangarajan, leading environmental historian who teaches at Ashoka University, Sonepat, said.

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