Where the Wild Things Were

Even though the trail of the Indian cheetah has been lost in the sands of time, the life and times of the species continue to fascinate natural historians and conservationists, and with good reason.

Written by Raza Kazmi | Updated: October 2, 2016 12:00:20 am
speed-thrills Speed thrills: A cheetah trained for game-hunting; the image was first published in a 1927 issue of The Illustrated London News.

A curious animal is this hunting cheetah — a cat (i.e. a small and much attenuated leopard) down to its feet, and, at those extremities, a dog. Twice, in the course of my Deoghar career, was I summoned forth from my cutcherry to shoot cheetahs… I rode gun in hand to the scene of action… climbed on the thatched roof that covered the cheetah, and made a hole in the thatch in view to shooting the spotted thief where it crouched below. In both instances, I failed of this purpose…; for so soon as I had displaced enough of the roof to make a hole through which I could look into the interior, the cheetah came out by it, and springing to the ground went off.”

And so, in the distant lands of “Sonthal Pergunnah” (today, the Santhal Pargana in eastern Jharkhand), as the British tried outmanoeuvering the “mutineers of 1857”, two Indian cheetahs outwitted Sir Edward Braddon, the then assistant commissioner at Deoghar. Less than a century later, however, fate finally outran the fastest animal on earth, and the Indian cheetah quietly faded from the vast open grasslands and scrublands of India.

Today, a handful of Asiatic cheetahs — the last of their kind — tether on to existence in a few large protected areas in the arid central and the hilly northeastern tracts of Iran. That is the only place in the world where a cheetah — the arid and dry grassland specialist — will leave pugmarks in the snow, grow a thick furry coat, and, sometimes, even develop a slender mane, to cope with the cold.

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the Iranian conservationists, government, and international organisations to save these last few yuz — as the cheetah is known in Persian — and prevent them from going the way of the Caspian tiger and Persian/Asiatic lions in Iran, the population continues to decline. A recent ominous headline in The Guardian — courtesy Iranian Cheetah Society, the Tehran-based NGO at the forefront of cheetah conservation efforts in Iran — announced that “only two female Asiatic cheetahs remain in wild in Iran”. The accompanying population estimate suggested that their numbers have plummeted below 50, which means that the Asiatic cheetah may now well have snagged from the Amur leopard the ill-fated tag of the world’s rarest big cat.

cheetah-gaekwad-759 Cheetahs belonging to Gaekwad Sayaji Rao III

In India, it was Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya, in Chattisgarh, a man infamous for shooting around 1,150 tigers (1,710 according to some sources) in his lifetime, who gunned down the last known cheetahs — three brothers — in 1947, during a night drive, a few miles from the nondescript village of Ramgarh, which today lies within Guru Ghasidas National Park in Chhattisgarh. The Maharaja’s kin reported the presence of a few stragglers, including a pregnant female, in the forests of Chhattisgarh’s Surguja district right up to 1967-68. A shikari was said to have shot one in the forests of Dhenkanal in Orissa in 1960, and a couple of unconfirmed sightings were reported from Orissa-Andhra Pradesh border (1951) and Chittoor district (in Chandragiri, in March, 1952). The latter sighting is generally accepted as the final credible report of a cheetah in India. In 1952, the cheetah, the animal whose name is derived from the Sanskrit root chitraka (spotted/speckled), was officially declared extinct from India.

Even though the trail of the Indian cheetah has been lost in the sands of time, the life and times of the species continue to fascinate natural historians and conservationists, and with good reason. The Indian cheetah has always been an enigma of sorts. While the British wrote volumes on the more illustrious big cats of India, the cheetah remained conspicuously absent from most narratives.

Why was it so? Because, first of all, back in the days of the Raj, there was a great deal of ambiguity regarding the nomenclature of cheetahs and leopards. The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is built to maximise speed (70 miles/hour on an average) — it has a slender body, a small, round head, long legs, a flat muscular tail that acts like a rudder — and is much lighter than other big cats. The black tear-like streaks on its face help deflect the glare of the sun since it is an animal that usually hunts at daytime. Edward B Baker, author of Sport in Bengal: How, when and where to seek it (1886), suggested that the word “leopard” should be applied to the “cheetah” while what is generally called a “leopard” should only be called a “panther”.

A Mervyn Smith, in his book, Sport and Adventure in the Indian Jungle (1904), described the difference between the two thus: “The skin is differently marked to that of the panther. Both have a yellowish brown ground with black spots. The spots on the panther are rosettes; on the cheetah they are simply black dabs without a central opening of yellow… The cheetah, or hunting-leopard, in no way resembles the ordinary leopard or panther. The latter has retractile claws like the cat, while the cheetah’s paws are like those of the dog. Most shikarees are agreed that he belongs to the hyena family, and is to that animal what the greyhound is to the foxhound.”

Another reason for the conspicuous absence of cheetahs from most colonial hunting accounts is the fact that the cheetah was rarely, if ever, considered a “worthy trophy” by big-game hunters. Almost all of them preferred the much fiercer “big” game over the lissome cheetah. Moreover, by the time the “age of white hunters” dawned in India, the cheetahs were already on their way out, surviving in very low densities across their range, which then extended from Coimbatore to Central Provinces, and Balochistan to Orissa.

But it hadn’t always been this way. There was a time when this Asian cousin of the much better-known African cheetah ranged across multiple nations, right from Syria to Saranda (Jharkhand) and the Central Asian highlands to the Deccan Plateau. The yellowed pages of time establish India as the Asiatic cheetah stronghold, up till the late Mughal period. The name Asiatic cheetah, in fact, gained currency only after the species’ extinction from India, before which Indian cheetah was the common name for the sub-species. Mughal emperor Akbar was said to have acquired a whopping 9,000 cheetahs for his menagerie during his 49-year reign. The “sport” of “coursing with cheetahs”, wherein cheetahs with their propensity to being easily tamed, were caught from the wild and used to chase down and hunt (usually blackbucks) in grasslands and open fields, was a popular royal indulgence, widely prevalent in Mughal times, and, later, among many princely states in India during the colonial era (thus earning the animal the moniker “hunting leopards”).

However, since cheetahs were, and still are, notorious for their infertility in captivity, the royal menageries had to be constantly restocked with animals trapped from the wild, so much so that it led to the emergence of an entire sub-tribe called cheetahwaala Pardhis — from within the larger peninsular tribe of Pardhis (the nomadic community famed as expert trappers and hunters of wild game). The colonial policy of exterminating “vermins” with monetary rewards on offer extended to the already imperilled cheetah as well. Moreover, the high infant mortality rate among wild cheetahs (recent research from Africa has established that many females may never even be able to raise a single litter successfully in a lifetime and a few “supermoms” will be critical to adding to the population) meant that post a threshold decline in the the overall population, recovery would become extremely difficult. Finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, habitat transformation — open grasslands and scrublands, the cheetah’s preferred habitat — sealed the fate of the species.

The last relict cheetah populations were eventually pushed to the remotest regions of India, including Surguja, western Jharkhand, and along the Orissa-Andhra border. One of the last records of a “hunting leopard” comes from Talcher, a subdivision of Angul district in central Orissa, where a cheetah was shot in 1932 by Sir Arthur Cunningham Lothian, an experienced political officer, who would later become the chief commissioner of Ajmer-Merwara province. He wrote in his book, Kingdoms of Yesterday (1951): “In Talcher, one day, when out for a Tiger, I fired at an animal moving through the jungle, and found, to my great regret, that I had shot a specimen of that very rare animal, the Indian cheetah.”

And so ended the story of cheetahs in India. Or did it? An embarrassing controversy arose in November 1990, when the press came alight with reports of a long dead big cat having come to life almost four decades later, in Orissa. The then field director of Similipal Tiger Reserve reported sighting a cheetah on a routine patrol, and, around two weeks later, the deputy-director of the tiger reserve claimed to have seen the same animal on another patrol. The story caused some flurry in the conservation quarters before the matter was cleared up — both the officers had seen leopards and inadvertently referred to them by its vernacular name, cheeta (cheetahs and leopards were often referred in various languages by the same name), to the press.

The fading population of cheetahs in Iran also affects India. Ever since the cheetah was declared extinct in India, a section of conservationists have proposed a reintroduction of the species in India. It was argued that doing this would secure their unique habitat, often dismissed as “wastelands” and “degraded lands” in bureaucratic parlance, and its biodiversity the way tiger conservation has secured India’s woodlands.

The plan finally seemed to be coming to fruition during the UPA-II regime — the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, and Wildlife Institute of India, in consultation with Dr MK Ranjitsinh and Divyabhanusinh, two Indian cheetah experts, put forward a detailed blueprint on the reintroduction. “The cheetah is the only large mammal to have gone extinct from the ‘plains’ of India. At the same time, the population of African cheetahs has crashed from about 20,000 around 15-20 years back to less than 8,000 today; in Iran, the numbers are down to 50-60. The project was aimed at conserving the entire species,” says Divyabhanusinh. The proposal generated heated debates among conservationists. The dissenters pointed out the fruitlessness of the exercise arguing that the habitat needed to support a genetically viable population of cheetahs no longer existed. The proposal was also deemed an indulgence at a time when funds for wildlife conservation in India was limited, and dozens of other species, including tigers as well as the Great Indian Bustard (of which less than 100 remain now), were staring at extinction.

An even bigger controversy, however, was soon to emerge. Physically, there are barely any noticeable differences between Asiatic and African sub-species of cheetahs. Some experts believe the Asiatic cheetah to be slightly lighter than the African one, others note their tendency to have black-tipped tails against the usually white-tipped tails of their African counterparts. When Iran refused to part with any of their precious few cheetahs for India’s reintroduction programme, the proponents decided to import African cheetahs from Namibia instead. This move drew sharp criticism as it was argued, that such a step was nothing short of introducing an alien species in India, a move explicitly banned by International Union for Conservation of Nature. Stephen O’Brien, well-known wildlife geneticist and a supporter of the project, tried to deflect the criticism by claiming that the Asiatic cheetahs were separated from their African cousins by barely 5,000 years, and, hence, were genetically identical for all practical purposes.

cheetah-kolhapur-759 A pair of cheetahs belonging to the Maharajah of Kolhapur. The photo is from his Shikar Album, 1921

By 2010, the Rs 300-crore Project Cheetah was racing ahead full steam, backed by the ministry, under Jairam Ramesh. Madhya Pradesh’s Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, which had been waiting (and still continues to) for lions from Gir for almost two decades, was chosen as the reintroduction site. It seemed like a matter of months before Namibia’s cheetahs would sprint in India. But then, the Supreme Court intervened, taking cognizance of the appeals of the overwhelming majority of conservationists opposing the project. Simultaneously, a 2011 study by a group of Austrian scientists working in collaboration with the Iranian Department of Environment established that O’Brien was wrong in his pronouncements — the Asiatic cheetah was an unique subspecies, having separated from their African cousins around 30,000 years ago. The apex court put the project on hold in 2012, and in 2013, it scrapped the proposal altogether. The government tried reviving it in 2014 by filing a fresh plea — along with a new proposed site in Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh — but the court hasn’t been impressed.

With this, and the declining fortunes of cheetahs in Iran, it seems like the end of the road for the Indian cheetah, 54 years after its official extinction from the country. All that we are now left with are fleeting glimpses of this graceful cat buried in the pages of history, such as this remarkable account from the “Mhall Gorasi” forests, some 10 km from Burhanpur city in present-day Madhya Pradesh as witnessed by lieutenant-colonel TG Fraser in 1850: “…My gun-bearer called out, ‘Look! look, sir’ and along the summit of a grassy edge in front of me, I saw a sambur at speed, and, an instant after, a hunting cheetah, whose body at times rose above the grass as he bounded after him. Taking my rifle, I rode to keep them in view, which I could easily do as the country was gentle grassy hills, with only an occasional bush. After running thus for two hundred yards I saw a second cheetah run from the grass, and take up the pursuit and continue it, the first apparently having given it up, and after another two or three hundred yards both sambur and cheetah suddenly disappeared…”

Raza Kazmi is a Jharkhand-based conservationist and a keen student of India’s wildlife history. He is interested in raising awareness about lesser-known tiger reserves and neglected forests of India.

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