Plans to reintroduce cheetahs prompts conservation debate in India

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Plans to reintroduce cheetahs prompts conservation debate in India

Jeremy Page in Delhi
From The Times September 14, 2009

India is planning to reintroduce cheetahs into the wild, more than six decades after they were thought to have been hunted into extinction in the sub-continent.

But the plans have ignited a debate about wildlife conservation, with opponents arguing that India has neither the land nor the funds to sustain cheetahs and the dwindling tiger population. Wildlife experts and officials met in the northen Indian state of Rajasthan last week to draw up proposals to import up to 100 cheetahs from Africa over the next ten years.

The cats, which would come from countries such as Tanzania, Botswana and Kenya, would be kept in captivity in semi-wild enclosures until they were acclimatised, the experts said. They would then be released at several potential sites in Rajasthan, the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, the central state of Madhya Pradesh, and the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

“This is the only large mammal ever to have gone extinct in independent India,” Milind Pariwakam, wild species manager at the Wildlife Trust of India, which jointly organised last week’s meeting, told The Times.

“If you bring back a charismatic mammal like the cheetah, which is also an apex predator, it will help to protect many other species, as well as the whole grassland ecology.”

The plans have yet to be approved formally by the Indian Government, but they have been endorsed by Jairam Ramesh, the Environment and Forests Minister. “We plan to bring the cheetah back in India,” he told Parliament.

Mr Ramesh did not attend last week’s meeting, but sent a written message, pointing out that “cheetah” is derived from an ancient Sanskrit word meaning “spotted”.

“The risks are indubitable,” he said. “However, I feel that we owe it to the animal whose very name is derived from Sanskrit and that was once so ubiquitous in our country to at least analyse the pros and cons.”

The Asiatic cheetah used to roam across the Middle East, Central Asia and India, and was tamed by the Mughal emperors for hunting. The last one in India is believed to have been shot dead by the Maharajah of Surguja in Madhya Pradesh in 1947.

Today it is found only in the wild in Iran and is listed as a critically endangered sub-species.

Experts say that they will not reintroduce cheetahs to India from Iran, which has fewer than 60 in the wild. However, they say that they could use cheetahs from Africa as they are almost genetically identical to their Asiatic cousins.

Stephen J. O’Brien, a leading conservation geneticist, said that African and Indian cheetahs separated about 5,000 years ago, but did not qualify as a sub-species.

By contrast, African and Asiatic lions were separated about 100,000 years ago and are considered sub-species, as are African and Asiatic leopards.

Most experts and officials agree in principle to the cheetah proposals, but many argue that India cannot afford the project, given the problems it has protecting tigers and other endangered species. “I don’t think it’s a wise idea,” said R. N. Mehrotra, the chief wildlife warden of Rajasthan.

India started the Project Tiger programme in 1973 to protect its tigers, which numbered about 40,000 a century ago. But the initiative failed to prevent the tiger population from falling to 1,411 in February last year, down from 3,642 in 2002, largely because of poaching.

Call of the wild

— Almost wiped out by trapping, poisoning, and habitat loss, the last 22 California condors were captured by the US Government and intensively bred in captivity. It released them again in 1991, and there are now 156

— In 1918, Britain’s last white-tailed eagle, its largest bird of prey, was shot in the Shetland Islands. After attempts to reintroduce the species in 1959, there are now 32 pairs living there

— The Arabian oryx has been reintroduced to Oman from a zoo population since being hunted to death in the wild in 1972. Despite mixed success, in 2006, one, named Orry, became the official mascot for the Asian Games in Doha

— Grey wolves were wiped out in the northern Rockies, in the US, under extermination projects in the 1930s then reintroduced in the 1990s, despite protests from ranchers that they would kill livestock

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