Eighteen cheetahs to be imported from Iran, Namibia and South Africa more than 60 years after the species was hunted to extinction
Jason Burke guardian.co.uk, Thursday 29 July 2010 16.40 BST
The cheetah is to return to India, more than 60 years after the last three were shot dead by hunters on the subcontinent.
Indian minister for the environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, has picked three sites for the reintroduction of the animal within a year. Eighteen cheetahs are to be brought from Iran, Namibia and South Africa. A budget of over £500,000 has been made available to prepare the sites for their release.
“It is important to bring the cheetah back as it will help restore the grasslands of India,” Ramesh said. “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.”
India’s wildlife has struggled in recent decades. The country’s world famous population of tigers has shrunk from more than 3,600 in 2002 to around 1,400 now. Successive government initiatives have foundered on corruption; conflicts between often extremely poor local communities and the animals; the power of organised criminal smuggling networks which supply tiger parts to east Asia, and simple administrative inertia. The population of snow leopards now numbers between 100 and 200, possibly less than a third of the total a decade ago. The Gangetic dolphin remains endangered, although the number of Asiatic lions has recently increased.
India’s last wild cheetahs are thought to have been shot by the Maharajah of Surguja in 1947.
“Nature has given us something that we did not know how to keep. Why do we think we can recreate it? Why do we think we will be able to keep it better now?,” Dr Ali Sher, cheetah expert at the Indian Institute of Immunology told the Guardian.
Many experts believe that with the herds of deer and antelopes that once provided the cheetahs’ diet also long gone, the project is bound to fail.
The objections were rejected by Ramesh, the minister.
“Reintroduction is matter of national importance, as cheetah is the only mammal to [become] extinct from India. ” he said.
The three sites recommended by scientists for the project (pdf) are the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in the central state of Madhya Pradesh and Shahgarh in the desert near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan.
Eventually it is hoped the three reserves will sustain a population of over 100 cheetahs, creating a thriving tourist business which will benefit local communities.
“The return of the cheetah would make India the only country in the world to host six of the world’s eight large cats and the only one to have all the large cats of Asia,” MK Ranjitsinh of Wildlife Trust of India told the Press Trust of India news agency.