Climate and Us | Giving our big cats a sustainable home

The first batch of cheetahs is likely to arrive in India from Namibia and South Africa during India’s ongoing 75th Independence month. Though the dates haven’t been confirmed yet, it will be a historic moment for several reasons.

One, after a 75-year gap, we will see cheetahs back in India. This will be the first intercontinental wild-to-wild transfer of cheetahs in the world, according to officials of the environment ministry.

Cheetahs used to thrive across the central Indian landscape, but disappeared in the late1940s due to large-scale sport hunting and a loss of habitat. The cheetahs that are arriving are not Asiatic cheetahs, but African cheetahs. This means that India will be introducing a genetic sub-species and not re-introducing the Asiatic cheetahs that went extinct in India, experts have said. India has already signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Namibia on cheetah translocation, while the agreement with South Africa is in its final stages, and will be signed in a few days.

The other reason why it is a significant moment is that the Kuno National Park, where these cheetahs will be naturalized, was initially identified for the Asiatic lion. In the 1990s, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) worked on finding an alternate home for the lions and identified the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary as the perfect habitat for them. Again in 2020, when the Center announced Project Lion, there were talks of the translocation of lions from Gir in Gujarat to other sites, including Kuno Palpur in Madhya Pradesh. But now, the Center has confirmed that they will focus on the natural dispersal of lions.

Asiatic lions are vulnerable because they have an isolated population in Gujarat. In 2018, canine distemper disease killed at least 28 lions in Gir. There are over 600 lions in Gir, according to the state government.

On July 25, while answering a question raised by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament (MP) Sanjay Kaka Patil on whether the government has been trying to translocate Asiatic lions into different parts of the country, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, minister of state for environment, informed the Lok Sabha that “a Committee was constituted by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change to assess the suitability of habitat for lions in potential sites in Gujarat and make recommendations regarding the facilitation of natural dispersal of lions and the modalities for the establishment of the lion population in newly identified sites in the state of Gujarat.”

“The committee has recommended a participatory management approach for expanding lion population, greater involvement of communities and awareness and sensitization programmes, especially in newly occupied territories. The ministry is providing financial assistance to the state of Gujarat for lion conservation activities including habitat improvement, water management, grassland development, and prey augmentation. These activities will also facilitate the natural dispersal of lions beyond the Gir landscape,” he added. This means that it’s unlikely that the lions will be translocated to other states.

Asiatic lions are vulnerable because they have an isolated population in Gujarat. (Parveen Kumar/HT Archive)

But why isn’t the government keen on translocating lions?

“That’s a political issue. It’s completely hypothetical with no science to explain it. We can only say that natural dispersal is a good idea. If their numbers grow and they move to say Rajasthan, who will stop them? Nobody will stop lions from dispersing. I think some experts are making an issue out of nothing,” said a senior official of the environment ministry during a discussion on the matter.

African cheetahs are going to be also naturalized in an area of ​​748 sq km in Kuno. Other areas for their introduction have also been identified, such as the Nauradehi and Gandhisagar reserves.

The key challenge for the Asiatic lions and the South African cheetah will be how to ensure that they sustain in islands or pockets of suitable habitat. What is the government’s strategy to ensure a healthy, viable population and connected habitats for these species? Tiger numbers may be increasing, but molecular ecologist, Uma Ramakrishnan’s crucial comment in The Hindu on what tiger numbers do not reveal about tiger conservation speaks volumes. “Decades of research in ecology and evolution suggest that numbers are critical to avoid extinction. Populations that are smaller than 100 breeding individuals have a high probability of extinction. At the same time, for populations to persist, they should be part of larger landscapes with other such populations that are connected. Small and isolated populations face a high probability of extinction. This is because small populations are subject to chance/random events,” she writes.

The same is true for the Asiatic lion and the African cheetah. They need space and safe habitat to prevent extinction. The politics on which state the lion or the cheetah stands for will push them further towards disappearance or vulnerable, isolated populations. India also needs an assessment of how it will balance the massive pressure of diverting forests for infrastructure projects and providing a haven to wildlife. However, the chances of survival of these unique, charismatic species will be at high risk.

From the climate crisis to air pollution, from questions of the development-environment tradeoffs to India’s voice in international negotiations on the environment, HT’s Jayashree Nandi brings her deep domain knowledge in a weekly column

The views expressed are personal

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