The Supreme Court on Tuesday (January 28) allowed the Centre to introduce the African cheetah to a suitable habitat in India.
With India’s own cheetahs vanishing, a plea for this had been filed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), seeking permission to introduce the African cheetah from Namibia.
‘Reintroduction’ of a species means releasing it in an area where it is capable of surviving.
A bench comprising CJI S A Bobde, Justice B R Gavai and Justice Surya Kant ordered a proper survey on the locations where the African cheetah can be introduced. For now, the animals will be brought in on an experimental basis to see if they can adapt to Indian conditions.
African cheetah and Asiatic cheetah
Before Namibia, India had approached Iran for Asiatic cheetahs, but had been refused. The Asiatic cheetah is classified as a “critically endangered” species by the IUCN Red List, and is believed to survive only in Iran.
From 400 in the 1990s, their numbers are estimated to have plummetted to 50-70 today, because of poaching, hunting of their main prey (gazelles) and encroachment on their habitat.
‘Critically endangered’ means that the species faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.
Asiatic cheetahs in India
In 1947, Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya (now in Chhattisgarh) reportedly killed the last known Asiatic cheetah in India.
In that year, a few miles from Ramgarh village in the state, the Maharaja killed three of the animals — brothers — during a night drive. After that, the Maharaja’s kin continued to report the presence of a few stragglers in the forests of Surguja district, including a pregnant female, up until the late 1960s. Some more unconfirmed sightings were reported in 1951 and 1952, from the Orissa-Andhra Pradesh border and Chittoor district. The latter sighting is generally accepted to be the final credible sighting of a cheetah in India.
In 1952, the cheetah was officially declared extinct from India.
Why does NTCA want to reintroduce cheetahs?
A section of conservationists has long advocated the reintroduction of the species in the country. During the UPA-II regime, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), in consultation with two Indian cheetah experts, Dr MK Ranjitsinh and Divyabhanisinh, put forward a detailed plan to reintroduce the species.
A 2010 press release issued by the environment ministry quoted a senior scientist at the WII, Dr YV Jhala, as saying that “reintroductions of large carnivores have increasingly been recognised as a strategy to conserve threatened species and restore ecosystem functions. The cheetah is the only large carnivore that has been extirpated, mainly by over-hunting in India in historical times. India now has the economic ability to consider restoring its lost natural heritage for ethical as well as ecological reasons.”
Those who challenged the plan argued that the habitat of cheetahs needed to support a genetically viable population.
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
Following the SC decision today, Jairam Ramesh, who was the Minister of State for Environment and Forests in 2010, tweeted, “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.”
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