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Explained: Lion’s future, cheetah’s past

The jury is still out on the project's merit but Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, where the arrival of Asiatic lions is long pending, awaits the first batch of African cheetahs in August. What are the project plans, and why does it divide opinion?

A face-off between a lion and a cheetah in Serengeti, Tanzania (Image Source: Valmik Thapar/'Land of the Cheetah')

The deals have been inked. Starting in August, four male and four female African cheetahs will be imported from Namibia, and another 12 from South Africa, for soft release in a compartmentalised enclosure ready at Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh to establish the cheetah into its “historical range”. However, as underlined by the Supreme Court, introduction, and not reintroduction, would be the right term for the project since African cheetahs could not have ever roamed Kuno.

Phased releases

Once cheetahs arrive in Kuno, the plan is to keep male coalitions (groups) and individual females in separate but adjoining compartments “so that they are able to know each other” before release. The enclosure will be stocked with natural prey to ensure that the animals get accustomed to hunting Indian prey species before their release.

Radio-collared male coalitions will be released first after 1-2 months. The presence of females in the enclosure, the project’s Action Plan says, will ensure that the males do not wander too far away “after their exploration instinct is satiated”.

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In the next phase, the radio-collared females will be released, 1-4 weeks after the males, depending on how the males settle down in the new environment. If any animal tends to get into an undesirable environment, it will be brought back.

Target milestones

If all goes well, the population should reach its limit of 21 within Kuno in about 15 years. During this period, a few other smaller cheetah reserves will be created in Rajasthan and elsewhere in MP. For at least five years and up to 10 years, fresh supply of cheetahs will continue from Africa.

The hard boundaries of Kuno National Park abutting human habitation will be secured through proper fencing, if needed, at least during the initial years. Once the greater Kuno landscape is secured and restored, the largest population is projected to go up to 36 cheetahs in 30-40 years.

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The fenced enclosure for the soft release of cheetahs in Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh. (Source: Cheetah Action Plan/MoEF)

Is that enough?

Not really. The project’s Population Viability Analysis has shown “high probability of long-term cheetah persistence” within populations that exceed 50 individuals, or when smaller populations are managed as a (inter-connected) meta-population.

Even the largest projected population falls short of that viability threshold, and there is not much natural connectivity to speak of for cheetahs to travel from one habitat to another.

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The solution is to borrow the South African model that periodically translocates individual animals from one fenced-off reserve to another for maintaining genetic diversity.

So, what’s the problem

Creating and maintaining a few small “island populations” is not quite the same as the popular idea of bringing back the cheetah that once roamed free in the Indian wild. The biggest challenge facing conservation in India is how to maintain habitat connectivity that keeps meta-populations self-sufficient (genetically viable) to perform their ecological roles.

On the other hand, the model of establishing populations that will depend on human intervention for survival effectively reduces protected areas to glorified open zoos. The cheetah model, worry experts, may pave the way for wider acceptance of such compromises.

The cheetah project also promises to benefit endangered grassland species, such as the endangered Indian wolf and the near-extinct great Indian bustard (GIB). In the umbrella-approach of conservation, multiple species in a forest (tiger reserve, for instance) are protected in the name of a flagship species (ie tiger). There has been no justification, though, as to why one must introduce an exotic replacement for an extinct species to save indigenous species.

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Wolves, for example, are the keystone species in Nauradehi and would have to compete with cheetahs. The majestic GIB is a potential prey for the cheetah. In fact, the project excluded Jaisalmer’s Desert National Park because “putting the cheetah in with the bustard cannot be contemplated at all, because of the threat to this most gravely endangered bird”. And yet, it recommended erstwhile GIB habitats for the cheetah, in effect denying the bird any chance of habitat recovery.

Ultimately, any experiment to build any wild population, experts note, is fraught with uncertainties and must have compelling conservation imperatives, such as building a backup stock of Asiatic lions, long isolated in Gir national park where epidemics or natural calamities may send them the cheetah way.

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Not lion vs cheetah

A number of conservationists are riled by what they term “wilful contempt of the Supreme Court” that in April 2013 set a six-month deadline for shifting lions to Kuno. In fact, a contempt case was dismissed in 2018 after the government assured the Supreme Court that its order would be followed. Many blame the Gujarat government for stubbornly refusing to share lions even after its review and curative petitions were dismissed by the SC.

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Instead, Kuno is getting cheetahs ostensibly to serve a host of grassland ecosystem services, all of which could be served by lions, an apex species. In fact, the cheetah project is open to introduction of lions to Kuno after the cheetah population settles down. But the government’s draft 25-year plan for Project Lion focuses on assisted natural dispersal with no scope for relocation outside Gujarat.

Yet, it is not about the competing interests of two wild species but India’s misplaced conservation priorities. The critics of the cheetah project concede that introducing even an exotic subspecies of the long extinct Asiatic cheetah in India evokes powerful nostalgia. But, they caution, India’s conservation priority should be saving what can still be saved. The longing to relive the cheetah’s past should not jeopardise the lion’s future.

First published on: 28-07-2022 at 04:00:12 am
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