With the arrival of African cheetahs in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park has begun the process of their re-introduction, around 70 years after they went extinct in India. Concerns have been raised about whether the big cats can settle in and survive in the Indian landscape. Kuno, which was upgraded from a wildlife sanctuary to a national park in 2018, is set to see some changes as a result.
One way the government is trying to smoothen the settling in of the cheetahs is through the medium of “cheetah mitras” or ‘cheetah friends’.
Cheetah mitras have mainly been involved by the government to familiarise the local populations with the big cats and minimise potential conflicts. As the cheetahs have been brought to Kuno, the nearby villages might be unaware of the changes that can come about with the new animal being introduced.
To make the local population understand more about the cheetah and its characteristics, forest officials have trained around 400 cheetah mitras from 51 villages, including school teachers, village headmen and patwaris.
One such change could be the animals venturing out of the parks into human settlements. The residents have been told how to differentiate the cheetah from a leopard as cheetahs are less likely to attack humans, and to contact forest officials if they spot a cheetah. While taking cattle near the forests for grazing, villagers have been told to listen to the community radio for news about the animal’s movements.
What is their role?
On the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the cheetahs at Kuno, he shared a video of his interactions with cheetah mitras. He is seen asking a group what their work will be, and one man from the team replies, “the protection of cheetahs”.
They explain they will take care that the animal does not move outside the park and into the villages, and alert officials if need be, adding that there is a bigger threat to cheetahs from humans than the other way round. Modi said that around 2007, a similar initiative was taken to aid conservation efforts for the Asiatic lions in Gujarat.
One such cheetah mitra, The Indian Express has reported, is a former dacoit. Ramesh Sikarwar, who was a dacoit in and around the Chambal river, said he was familiar with the forest as it used to be his hideout in the 1970s and 1980s.
Along with informing the villagers, he said keeping the big cats safe from poachers will be an important task. Hunting was why the Asiatic cheetah went extinct in India in 1952, and to protect the cheetahs today, two drone squads have been readied, five watch towers with CCTV cameras have been put up and at least 24 retired military personnel have been hired.
When will the cheetahs be allowed to be seen by the public?
A forest official in Madhya Pradesh said, “After the month-long quarantine period, the cheetahs will have to hunt for their survival in the bigger enclosure where they will stay for another month”. This is to gradually make cheetahs used to the new environment before they are finally released in the national park.
On September 25, the PM said in his Mann ki Baat radio programme that it will be several months before the cheetahs finally adapt and an assessment is made by a task force, which will take the call on when the park can be fully opened to the public for viewing cheetahs and other animals.