Counterview: Save the tiger first – View: Welcome the big cat

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Counterview: Save the tiger first

9 Jul 2009, 0000 hrs IST, Narayani Ganesh

Jairam Ramesh, minister for environment and forests, says that the government proposes to import cheetahs to reintroduce them here in the wild. He hopes that by doing so, the Asiatic cheetah that is now found only in some regions of Iran and Pakistan, might start breeding in India as well, several decades since its extinction here in the mid-20th century.

The world’s fastest land animal ran out of steam in India because the authorities have failed to check poaching and habitat destruction. These two problems continue to plague the tiger and lion, which is why the big cats in India are dwindling in numbers even as traders in wildlife products and the land mafia are making a killing. It is not as though we have now reinstated lost habitats and have found a way of putting an end to the hegemony of ruthless poachers. Why then does the minister wish to inflict all these problems on the poor spotted creature, transplanting it away from its familiar surroundings that are probably better preserved and protected? Should we not first save the tiger that is faced with grave threats?

Desertification, loss of grassland and forests to agriculture, falling numbers of prey and the threat of poachers mean that when the imported cheetah arrives in India, it will have to deal with a hostile environment. And cheetahs are animals that are used to moving around freely in fairly expansive habitats. They don’t confine themselves to a small, marked territory. Add to this its weak gene pool, its fragile nature, poor survival rate among cubs and low fertility rate and what you have is a recipe for disaster.

There was a proposal at the turn of the century to clone the cheetah at a Hyderabad-based facility at a cost of $1 million. Nothing happened. The money could be better spent in restoring scrubland and forest, training poachers to turn protectors and clamping down on the market for wildlife products. Let’s first protect and save what we have here before re-introducing a species that has been extinct for more than half a century.

View: Welcome the big cat

9 Jul 2009, 0000 hrs IST

Cheetahs have been extinct in India since 1952. But Jairam Ramesh, minister for environment and forests, now plans for India to have a homegrown species via a repopulation programme. This will bring cheer, and not only to animal lovers and wildlife enthusiasts.
For far too long we’ve had tragic headlines about vanishing tigers and elephants and leopards being driven to the edge in man-animal conflicts. But the cheetah story suggests that the authorities care enough about India’s wildlife heritage to resurrect the only animal to have been declared extinct in the country in the last 1,000 years.

Expect predictable potshots at such a mission. Some critics will say India has enough on its plate: habitat loss and poaching of animals like tigers, now absent in Sariska and Panna. We need, however, to combat wildlife endangerment regardless of whether or not the cheetah returns.

Encroachment and the poacher-forest official nexus are stand-alone issues. Some may say cheetahs need vast tracts of now-scarce grassland, so getting them is impractical. Since Ramesh indicates that technical studies will assess feasibility, they might want to hold their fire.

The plan will also come up against the unenlightened viewpoint that every human activity should be people-centric. Public money, it will be argued, can be better spent on social programmes. Surely aiding human beings and conserving animals aren’t mutually exclusive. Protecting dying species is part of the larger effort at nature conservation.

A report recently revealed that over 800 animal and plant species have gone extinct in the past five centuries. Almost 17,000 more are on the brink. Such large-scale destruction represents a heart-rending loss to man’s natural heritage. If anything, every country should get into rescue mode.

In the Asiatic cheetah’s case, just about 70 to 100 are said to be surviving, their presence limited to Pakistan and Iran. By giving the big cat another home, India can help boost its longer-term chances of survival. Beautiful and intelligent species shouldn’t have to die out just because we don’t want to look beyond our backyards

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