Argued back and forth for decades (since their local extinction in 1952), the idea of reintroducing cheetah has never gone away for India. For the government, it is clearly at least partly a matter of pride – as the only home of the Asiatic lion, claiming over 50% of remaining wild tigers living within its borders, more than 10,000 wild leopards and even 4-500 wild snow leopards, cheetah was the only big cat to be allowed to go missing.
Even Cheetah is derived from the Hindi word Chita which means spotted one.
Unfortunately, despite their pride over the big cats that live alongside them, big cats have not fared well since independence. With the human population going from 360 million at independence to 1.2 billion now, far less space is left for wildlife.
At independence, there was thought to be about 40,000 tigers still living in India.
What relevance does this have to this articles subject? It is simple. Unlike Africa, there is not much space left for cheetah. If we look at Africa which reserves do cheetahs thrive in? Cheetah do well in two types of reserves –
- vast ones, big enough for them to find spaces to live where they can mostly avoid contact with the lions leopards and hyenas
- Small ones, where cheetah do not have to live alongside permanent big cat populations
This is because cheetah are not a big cat! Although standing next to a lion or leopard, they appear about the same height, their build is far more slim. A adult male lion will weigh 150-250kg, where as an adult male cheetah will weigh 35-65kg.
So what sort of reserves are available in India? Nagarjunsagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve is the largest reserve in India covering 1,439 sq miles. There are 29 reserves in Africa bigger than this. Indeed, it has been found in South Africa, that cheetah often do better at least partly on farmland, living on the periphery of protected lands. As an example, the Kruger covers an area of 7500 square miles, yet its cheetah population bounces between 70 and about 500. With these numbers as an estimate, this reserve could host between 14 and 100 cheetahs- not really viable in the long-term.
Looking at Kuno national park – the destination of these cheetah, this park has an area of 748 square km (barely 300 square miles) or 4% of the area of the Kruger. As a result, it would in theory have space for 2 -15 cheetah at the same density. Now admittedly, tigers live at lower densities than lions (there are about 12 in Kuno), which means that cheetah are perhaps not going to meet tigers by mistake very often. Unfortunately, in Africa many cheetah cubs are killed by other predators to reduce competition – hence the larger litter size for cheetah.
What does this mean?
India is going to need at least 10 reserves of this size, and to translocate cheetah regularly if they are to develop a viable cheetah population in the country.
I do not disapprove of cheetah returning to India. To the contrary, I believe that this animal belongs in the country even though many people argue they are too different. The simple fact, is that the Asiatic cheetah is on its last legs in Iran, with some estimates putting the population no greater than around 10-12 breeding animals. The fact of the matter is that the African cheetah fills the same niche as the Asiatic cheetah, and living in similar habitat and at similar temperatures they are likely to fare in similar ways.Now, there is a different issue about whether we should be reintroducing cheetah, vs putting the same money into better conservation of lions and tigers, but this is a different debate.
India’s population has not stopped growing, with expectations of it reaching as much as 1.5 billion by 2030 and 1.66 billion by 2050. As a result, it is going to be a big struggle to retain what wildlife they have as it is. To put these numbers in context, currently Africa has a population of 1.2 billion people spread over an area of 30 million square km, vs just 3 million in India. In easier terms, India has an average human density of 431 per square km, where as Africa has a density of 45 per square km.
In conclusion, while I do not disapprove of returning cheetah to the wilds of India, it will take many decades of work to truly return this animal to the wild, and will take much needed conservation money to make this happen. Should India eventually hit peak human numbers (some models suggest a date of about 2050 at around 1.5 billion) it is still going to take a while for the population to fall back down. As such, these fortress reserves will have to be maintained for many decades – should India Urbanize, and end up leaving more wilderness, perhaps these reserves can grow and start to truly represent wilderness that will survive long into the future without human intervention.