Return Of The Cheetah?
October 2010: Despite its immense and increasing demographic pressures, India has lost only one large wild mammalian species since the country’s Independence in 1947.
In fact, if the Javan Rhinoceros sondaicus inermis and the Sumatran Dicerorhinus sumatrensis lasiotis rhinoceroses, which in any case lived a peripheral existence in the eastern extremity of the country, be excluded, India has not lost a large mammalian species in historical times, barring the cheetah Acinonyx jubatus venaticus. This cat, charismatic in its own right, has a very special significance in the ethic and ethos of conservation.
The reintroduction of the cheetah has several important conservation ramifications. In saving it, one would not only have to save its prey-base, some of which are threatened, but also other highly-endangered species of the grassland-scrub-open woodlands including the caracal, Indian wolf, desert fox, desert cat and three endangered species of the bustard family – the Houbara, the Lesser Florican and the Great Indian Bustard. The scrub-grassland-open woodland dependent species, both avifaunal and faunal, have suffered a more drastic decline than any other species adapted to other biomes, simply because these ecosystems have undergone the most qualitative and quantitative decimation of all ecotypes in the subcontinent.
RESTORING GRASSLAND HABITATS
The cheetah restoration will be part of a prototype for restoration of original cheetah habitats and their biodiversity, helping to stem the degradation and rapid loss of biodiversity now underway. Lessons learnt from this process will benefit the management of these eco-types, the most overused, least managed and yet the most productive biomes in the country.
Dry grasslands and open forests are under-represented in the national network of Protected Areas (PAs). The National Wildlife Action Plan calls for appropriate biodiversity representation in the Protected Area Network. The National Forest Commission of the Government of India also strongly recommends the further protection of grasslands and associated flagship species. This is particularly relevant to our country which has the largest livestock population in the world, almost all of which is free-ranging.
The inputs envisaged for the upgradation of the sites selected for reintroduction would per se significantly improve the conservation status of the habitats in question, thereby helping the habitat, the fauna and the neighbouring people, who would benefit from the increase in vegetative biomass and improvement of the water regime.
Among large carnivores, the cheetah is likely to present the lowest level of conflict as it is not a threat to human life and is most unlikely to predate large livestock. Bringing back a top predator restores historic evolutionary balance, which leads to:
a) Better management and restoration of cheetah habitat (grasslands, scrublands and open forest ecosystems) in general.
b) Conservation of the cheetah’s prey and sympatric endangered species.
c) A top-down effect of a large predator that enhances and maintains the diversity in lower trophic levels of the ecosystems.
d) Raising of the conservation status of the habitats selected for the actual reintroduction.
The reintroduction of large carnivores has increasingly been recognised as a strategy to conserve threatened species and restore ecosystem functions. India now has the economic ability to consider restoring its lost natural heritage for ethical as well as ecological reasons. Within this context, a consultative meeting of global experts was held at Gajner in September 2009. A consensus was reached at this meeting for conducting a detailed survey in selected sites to explore the potential of reintroducing the cheetah in India. Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Environment and Forests, mandated the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) with this task.
Ten sites from seven landscapes located in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were assessed for their potential to harbour viable reintroduced cheetah populations. Field surveys were conducted to collect data on prey abundance, local community dependencies on forest resources and their attitudes towards wildlife and remotely sensed data was used to guage habitat size. The current and potential carrying capacity of the sites as well as the long-term viability of the introduced population was also studied using Population Habitat Viability Analysis.
Based on the above assessment, it is recommended that the cheetah could potentially be reintroduced at 1) Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary, Madhya Pradesh 2) Shahgarh Landscape in Jaisalmer and 3) Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary, Madhya Pradesh. All the three sites require preparation and resource investments. Long-term commitment of political will, resources and personnel is required from the Central and State Governments to implement this project successfully. A fourth site, the Guru-Ghasidas and Sanjay-Dubri Landscape, was put on hold for the present.
THE CHEETAH IN THE WESTERN – EASTERN GHATS LANDSCAPE
The Masinagudi Range of the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, the Sigur Range of the Nilgiri north Forest Division, part of the Moyar Range of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, the newly-established Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary, the Pinjur Range of the Chamarajnagar Wildlife Division and the Gundlupet Range of the Kollegal Forest Division should be considered before a site is finalised for cheetah reintroduction. More precisely this landscape lies between the Eastern and Western Ghats. If Opuntia dillenii and Prosopis juliflora (both are exotics from tropical America) are eradicated from this landscape (nearly 1,000 sq. km.) its carrying capacity for chital and blackbuck would go up dramatically. Even now there could be close to 500 blackbuck and well over a thousand chital. Chowsingha are also found here. Other herbivores are gaur, sambar, feral buffaloes and elephants. Carnivores are tiger, leopard, dhole, sloth bear and hyena. Camera-trap studies carried out by WWF-India indicate a high density of these carnivores in the Sigur Range and parts of the Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary. At least 300 sq. km. area is free from grazing.
Having spent at least 20 nights in Palpur-Kuno, I would say that the Masinagudi landscape would be a much better choice than Palpur-Kuno. On August 10, 2010, I took B.K. Singh, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Karnataka and R. Sunderaraju, Chief Wildlife Warden of Tamil Nadu across this landscape.
If cheetah, chinkara and nilgai are reintroduced here then this will be the most unique wildlife (large mammal) landscape in India. Interestingly this landscape continues into the Upper Nilgiris where tigers hunt gaur, sambar and Nilgiri tahr. We have to strengthen the existing connectivity with the upper Nilgiris. – Dr. A.J.T. Johnsingh
SEVERAL REFERENCES SUGGEST THAT THIS LANDSCAPE WAS ONCE HOME TO THE CHEETAH, CHINKARA AND NILGAI
Taken from The end of a trail: the cheetah in India, Divyabhanusinh 1995 and Mahesh Rangarajan, The role of administration in extermination: fresh evidence on the cheetah Acionyx jubatus in India. JBNHS 95: 328-332.
In south India a cheetah was shot in the Berrambadi forest of Mysore (Russel 1900). Morris (1935, 1936) shot a cheetah near Attikalpur in the Chamranagar State Forest of Mysore between 1890-1895 and a skin was obtained from Bolampatti south of Coimbatore. According to Nicholson (1887) one cheetah was shot and five were killed for rewards at the junction of rivers Moyar and Bhavani. Then the area had wolf Canis lupus, nilgai Boselaphus tragocamelus and blackbuck Antilope cervicapra. Pythian-Adams (1951) writes about the occurrence of nilgai in the Sathyamangalam area and chinkara Gazella bennettii in the Coimbatore division which in the past possibly included the present day Kollegal, Sathyamangalam and Coimbatore forest divisions.
The Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary is a part of the Sheopur-Shivpuri forested landscape, which has the second largest area (6,800 sq. km.) amongst the surveyed sites. This site was rated high on the priority list as there has already been a great deal of restorative investment to prep the habitat for Asiatic lions. The Protected Area was estimated to have a current capacity to sustain 27 cheetahs, which could be enhanced to over 32 individuals by the addition of some more forested areas (120 sq. km.) to the Kuno Sanctuary and effective management of the surrounding 3,000 sq. km. as a buffer. Once the cheetah population establishes itself within the sanctuary, dispersers would colonise the landscape, which could and potentially hold over 70 individuals. This would not preclude the reintroduction of the lion once the cheetah population is established and the two introductions would complement each other. Indeed, Kuno offers the prospect of all the four large forest felids of India to coexist, as they did in the past.
The Shahgarh landscape on the international border in the Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan was also found to be suitable. As the area is fenced along the international border, it is proposed so as to additionally fence off the bulge area by constructing another 140 km. long chain-link fence, so as to encompass about 4,000 sq. km. of xerophytic habitat. Within this area about 80 seasonally used human settlements, each having 5-10 households, would need to be relocated with adequate and generous compensation and alternate arrangements provided. Though the prey species diversity was less (primarily chinkara) in Shahgarh, the area could currently support about 15 cheetahs and has the potential to sustain 40 cheetahs if managed well.
The Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary (1,197 sq. km.) in Madhya Pradesh is part of a forested landscape of 5,500 sq. km. Cheetah prey densities were found to be reasonable. Based on current prey densities, the area could support about 25 cheetahs. It is recommended that an area of 750 sq. km. be designated as a core area of the sanctuary and and that about 23 human settlements be relocated from the core with generous and adequate compensation. The assessment indicated that the local communities were willing to relocate if provided better livelihood and modern facilities. The site could then support over 50 cheetahs as a source population, while the Nauradehi landscape as a whole could harbour over 70 individuals.
Amongst the seven surveyed landscapes, the landscape encompassing the Sanjay National Park, Dubri Wildlife Sanctuary and Guru Ghasidas National Park was the largest, covering over 12,500 sq. km. It is in this landscape that the cheetah continued to survive until after India’s Independence. However, today this landscape is characterised by low prey densities, probably due to poaching by tribal communities that reside within the Protected Areas. The three PAs were currently estimated to have the capacity to support about 14 cheetahs. With restorative and managerial inputs under the Project Tiger scheme available for the Sanjay National Park and Dubri Wildlife Sanctuary, these PAs are likely to improve and could potentially support over 30 cheetahs, while the whole landscape could hold upto 60 individuals. It is recommended that the Guru Ghasidas National Park in Chhattisgarh also be considered under the Project Tiger scheme, as it is contiguous with Sanjay National Park and the Dubri Wildlife Sanctuary. Though reintroduction here is not appropriate under present circumstances, it is recommended that this landscape be restored and re-evaluated in the future.
THE WAY AHEAD
The concerned state governments would have to agree to the proposal in principle. Thereafter, a further study of three sites selected to determine their requirements in detail and the cost thereof, both capital and recurring, would have to be undertaken and approved. Carefully selected implementation teams comprising managers and experts would have to be set up at each of the project sites. The training of personnel, both within India and abroad, would be required. Expertise from abroad would also be needed, at least in the initial stage. A central coordination committee or task force needs to be set up, comprising representatives of the central and concerned state governments, WII, WTI and other experts and agencies involved to monitor and follow up on the project.
The venture must be viewed not simply as an introduction of a species, however charismatic it may be, but as an endeavour to better manage and restore some of our most valuable yet most neglected ecosystems and the species dependent upon them.
By M.K. Ranjitsinh