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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Looking for Cheetah, and the call of the wild

Strangely enough, if you look at our history, you will find that it was the hunting reserves of the shikaar-loving princely states and the British that had the highest number of wild animals.

Updated: March 28, 2021 8:39:26 am
The Cheetah, extinct in India, is believed to have been spotted last in 1950s. (Express archives)

(Written by M K RANJITSINH)

I had been keen to bring back India’s prodigal son, the Cheetah, for many years. The first time I attempted this was in the early ’70s, when I was negotiating with Iran, which at the time had about 250 Cheetahs. The Asiatic Lion had disappeared in Iran, while we still had 260 lions. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave the go-ahead for the exchange. But soon after, the Emergency happened, the Shah of Iran was deposed, the Cheetah numbers in Iran plummeted, and so the exchange never took place.

I was the first Director of Wildlife under the newly promulgated Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. This was also a legislation that I had proposed, and Indira Gandhi put her full weight behind it. I remember a meeting with her. She asked me what could be done for wildlife in the country, and I proposed there be a separate legislation to protect it and set up protected areas. We only had the Forest Act then. She brought in the legislation and had it passed.

She wrote personally to chief ministers asking them to agree. Eighteen chief ministers, including one non-Congress chief minister, passed legislation in their Assemblies agreeing with the Centre’s law. None of this would have been possible without her political will.

Indira Gandhi also made sure to bring in a constitutional amendment to make wildlife a concurrent subject. It was a state subject at that point — this was possibly the only good thing that happened during the Emergency.

Conservation in India is very unique, in that it trickles down from the top — that is from the leaders to the people. Strangely enough, if you look at our history, you will find that it was the hunting reserves of the shikaar-loving princely states and the British that had the highest number of wild animals. I do not in any way condone hunting, but it is curious that they had much higher numbers of animals than the non-hunting princely states. This is because prey for the carnivores and habitat for the herbivores were preserved, and the princes wouldn’t let the animal go extinct. Three princely states which were neighbouring districts in Madhya Pradesh killed 3,500 tigers in 35 years — and even after that there were more tigers there than now under Project Tiger.

I don’t take pride in being called a prince. But my great grandfather was the ruler of Wankaner (Gujarat) and I remember how there was always great interest in wildlife among my family. One of my earliest childhood memories is hearing the call of a leopard, or my father waking me up in the middle of the night, much against my mother’s wishes, to listen to this call and identify the gender of the leopard. I was a mischievous child, and if my parents wanted me to behave, my father would simply tell me he would not take me to see leopards, and I would behave!

I remember there was a tunnel underneath the hill near our palace that led directly to where prey for leopards would be kept. My father and I would go through the tunnel at night with torches, and watch leopards come and eat the prey as we stood underneath looking.

That’s why, when I joined the IAS, I asked for my cadre to be Madhya Pradesh. The state, which included Chhattisgarh then, had the largest forest area in the country. I started a mission to conserve the Central India barasingha (deer) at the time, whose numbers had dropped to 64. I built an enclosure, increased the park size, shifted the first villages from a park in independent India. This is how I have a long association with the Kanha reserve. I eventually established nine new national parks and 14 new sanctuaries in MP. And increased the size of three existing parks — Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Shivpuri — as the state forest secretary in 1981-83. I took these decisions without taking permission from anyone, as I could get away with it!

Whenever a minister would try to get a forest area de-notified, I would tell them they would have to take up the matter with Madam (Gandhi), and they would immediately withdraw the request!

Nowadays I visit national parks around the world, that I haven’t been to yet. I like spending time with my grandchildren because they as playful as wild animals! But there is no end to conservation, and it has actually become more difficult now. You can win battles, but never the entire campaign. All my life, the one thing I have felt saddest about is extinction of a species. And that is why I continue to fight. It gives me a purpose and keeps senility at bay.

Right now I am fighting a case in the Supreme Court on conserving the Great Indian Bustard. I filed the case two years ago, but the first argument will take place on April 6. I will attend the court hearing virtually due to Covid.

There are only five Bustards left in a small pocket of Kutch in my own state, besides small pockets in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh where they exist. The Bustards are clever birds, but they die because of overhead electric lines as they don’t have frontal vision. I filed my case to fight to get these lines laid underground — only in the critical Bustard areas. We are not anti-power or anti-development.

M K Ranjitsinh, 83, was appointed by the Supreme Court last year to chair an expert committee set up to relocate the Cheetah from Africa to India

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