Last of India's cheetahs were shot by a Maharajah- 6 decades later government's reintroduction plan makes no headway

Last of India's cheetahs were shot by a Maharajah-  6 decades later government's reintroduction plan makes no headway
Last of India's cheetahs were shot by a Maharajah- 6 decades later government's reintroduction plan makes no headway
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The News Minute | January 2015 | 11:30 am IST

The Asiatic cheetah, which was declared extinct in India over 60 years ago, was reportedly a favourite animal of the Mughal emperor Akbar- he reportedly had an army of 1,000 cheetahs which accompanied him on his hunting expeditions.

Reports claim that the last known evidence of Asiatic cheetahs in India was the three shot dead in 1947 by the Maharaja of Surguja, the ruler of a princely state in Madhya Pradesh.

'He (Maharaja of Surguja) also bears the dark honour of holding the record for shooting the most tigers — a total of 1,360', states a July 2009 report by The Tribune.

But not all cheetahs in India were hunted down. 'Studies show that at least 200 cheetahs were killed in India during the colonial period mainly due to conflicts with sheep and goat herders, and not because they were shot by trophy hunters', states a report by the BBC.

( The last three Asiatic cheetahs recorded from India were shot down by Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo in Surguja, Madhya Pradesh, Central India seen in this photo submitted by his private secretary to JBNHS; Image source: Wikipedia )

The cheetah, the fastest land animal in the world, went extinct in India following extensive hunting and habitat loss. The cheetah is now found only in the arid regions of eastern Iran in Asia and in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

For the past few years, the Indian government has been trying to work on an amitious project to reintroduce the cheetah in India. The project includes trans-locating cheetahs from Namibia to reserves in India. 

Recently, the project yet again met with an obstruction- this time it being a shortage of funds.

"Madhya Pradesh forest department sought Rs 264 crore from the concerned departments in Delhi to import cheetah, that had become extinct in India, from Namibia to the state's Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in December 2013, but we have not received any response yet," Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) Narendra Kumar told PTI

According to the report, the project of reintroducing cheetahs in India was initiated in 2010 under the UPA-II rule, and would include the MP forest department to reserve 700 sq km area for the imported cheetahs to dwell in the sanctuary. This would also mean evacuating 20 villages located in the 700 sq km area for the project and compensate over 2,000 families. 

However, the Madhya Pradesh state government is not ready to finance the project stating it is a central government initiative.

India, in the 1970's was in talks with Iran, which is now home to the last known surviving Asiatic cheetahs in the world, in connection to a similar project, but the negotiations never progressed. And so the Indian government got in talks with Africa to import the African cheetahs.

However, conservationist have raised doubts over the project, stating cheetahs not only need several thousand square kilometres of habitat free of small livestock and other potential prey, but also a sufficient prey base- 50 to 80 antelope sized prey a year, adds the BBC report. 

Besides those, India has a chequered history when it comes to reintroducing animals. 'Lions were reintroduced in Chandraprabha santuary in the 1950s, but poached out of existence. Tigers were reintroduced in Dungarpur in the 1920s, but they were all shot dead by the end of 1950s', states the report. 

The Supreme court had earlier also 'quashed the MoEF’s decision to introduce African cheetahs in Kuno Palpur sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, after noting no detailed study had been conducted before introducing a foreign species to India and the designated expert body had also not been consulted', states a report by The Indian Express.

There have also been those who have supported the project since its inception. A 2010 report by The Guardian quotes the then Environment minister Jairam Ramesh as saying, "It is important to bring the cheetah back as it will help restore the grasslands of India. The way the tiger restores forest ecosystems, the snow leopard restores mountain ecosystems, and the Gangetic dolphin restores waters in the rivers, in the same way the cheetah will restore our grasslands."

Ramesh said "Reintroduction is matter of national importance, as cheetah is the only mammal to [become] extinct from India".

Now if only the government could get past all the hurdles.

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