How African cheetahs trumped Asiatic lions in India’s conservation debate

How politics has allowed African cheetahs to trump Asiatic lions in India’s conservation discourse.

Published : Jul 09, 2022 06:00 IST

Asiatic lion cubs at Sasan Gir Sanctuary in Gujarat.

Asiatic lion cubs at Sasan Gir Sanctuary in Gujarat. | Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

Over the last few years, a lot has been said about the Supreme Court ordered translocation of Asiatic lions from Gir forest in Gujarat to Kuno National Park (KNP) in Madhya Pradesh. Then, sometime in 2010, came news of plans to introduce the African cheetah, cheetahs having been declared extinct in India in 1952. The difference in the fortune of these two conservation projects is quite astounding, with hardly any noticeable movement in the case of lions and rapid progress with regard to cheetahs. What are the forces at play here?

In an order dated April 15, 2013, the Supreme Court stated in relation to the issue of translocating lions: “We re-iterate that while examining the necessity of a second home for the Asiatic lions, our approach should be eco-centric and not anthropocentric and we must apply the ‘species best interest standard’, that is, the best interest of the Asiatic lions.

“We may indicate that our top priority is to protect Asiatic lions, an endangered species and to provide a second home. MoEF [Ministry of Environment and Forest] is therefore directed to take urgent steps for re-introduction of Asiatic lion from Gir forests to Kuno. The order be carried out in its letter and spirit and within a period of 6 months from today.”

Stalled project

The operative parts of this order are loud and clear: translocate the lions within six months from Gir to Kuno. Establishing a second free-ranging population of wild Asiatic lions is in the best interest of the species and that is all that matters.

Almost immediately Gujarat challenged the order, first through a review petition and then through a curative petition. Neither of these found favour with the court.

Photograph of three cheetahs with handlers at Baroda, Gujarat, from the Curzon Collection, taken by an unknown photographer during the 1890s, according to the British Library’s Online Gallery.

Photograph of three cheetahs with handlers at Baroda, Gujarat, from the Curzon Collection, taken by an unknown photographer during the 1890s, according to the British Library’s Online Gallery. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

After exhausting its legal options, Gujarat has continued to insist on the completion of about 30 studies as suggested in the reintroduction guidelines of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), before relocating the lions. While the IUCN does recommend the studies in a general sense, they are not mandatory pre-conditions for translocation.

The IUCN guidelines provide both for a feasibility analysis of translocation and for its implementation. On the basis of the scientific inputs it received, the court has already determined the feasibility and its order only provided for the implementation of the translocation in accordance with the IUCN guidelines. The government of Gujarat was seemingly stalling matters by raising this demand.

Nine years have elapsed since the Supreme Court passed the order and still there is no sign of the lions being moved to Kuno. This despite a contempt petition filed in 2014 against the government for not shifting the lions. The Supreme Court took time to hear this petition and eventually dismissed it in March 2018 without giving reasons for its decision.

“Nine years after the Supreme Court order, the lions still have not been moved to Kuno.”

The worst fears regarding the risks inherent in restricting all wild Asiatic lions to a single location came true in September-October 2018, when several dozen lions died of diseases in a very short span of time.

The diseases included the dreaded canine distemper virus, which had wreaked havoc with the lions of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in the early 1990s. But even the largescale deaths in 2018 did not stir the State and Central governments into action. The Supreme Court also seems to be taking a rather indulgent approach to the governments’ failings.

Arbitrary and illegal

The April 2013 Supreme Court order had also addressed plans to reintroduce African cheetahs in Kuno: “At this stage, in our view, the decision taken by MoEF for introduction of African cheetahs first to Kuno and then Asiatic lion, is arbitrary and illegal and clear violation of the statutory requirements provided under the Wildlife Protection Act. The order of MoEF to introduce African Cheetahs into Kuno cannot stand in the eye of Law and the same is quashed.”

A cheetah at a game reserve in South Africa

A cheetah at a game reserve in South Africa

Here again, the court was clear in its reasoning and order, firmly saying no to the proposal. But the government was not listening. In 2016, through the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), it approached the court with a review petition seeking permission to introduce African cheetahs.

The NTCA sought a clarification from the court saying that its 2013 order did not impose a blanket ban on the introduction of cheetahs in India. It argued that cheetahs would help in the conservation of India’s neglected grasslands and open forests as well as of gravely endangered species occurring in these habitats, including the caracal, wolf and the great Indian bustard.

In an interim order dated April 10, 2018, the court stated: “It may be mentioned that earlier the intention was to import the African Cheetahs into Kuno, Shivpuri (Madhya Pradesh). By way of this application, the reintroduction of the Cheetahs from Africa is sought to be made in some other places as mentioned in para 3 of the application.”

It is clear here that the court is aware that the NTCA is seeking to introduce African cheetahs in sites other than Kuno. I quote from paragraph 3 of the NTCA’s application which the 2018 order mentions: “Pursuant to the above order, efforts have been made to investigate alternate sites for the reintroduction of cheetahs into India, such as Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary, Madhya Pradesh as well as Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu.” In October 2018, the Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee advised against the introduction of African cheetahs, saying, among other things, that India does not have the required habitat and prey density to support cheetahs.

The reintroduction of lions to establish additional free-ranging populations has been a national priority since the 1950s. Over the decades, it has been a part of India’s National Wildlife Action Plans (NWAP). The current NWAP, covering the period 2017-2031, mentions the need to establish additional populations in the wild for species that currently exist as one or two isolated populations, and the lion is specifically mentioned. This was to start in 2018 and be completed by 2021. No progress has been made here.

Watching in silence

In contrast, the government has been proactive when it comes to cheetahs. In January this year, it launched an action plan to introduce African cheetahs. This, when the introduction of cheetahs is not mentioned at all in the NWAP 2017-2031.

The action plan states: “KNP has been chosen as the first site for the cheetah introduction since it is ready with the required level of protection, prey, and habitat to house the cheetahs. KNP was estimated to have a current capacity to sustain 21 cheetahs. Once a cheetah population establishes itself within KNP, dispersers would colonise the landscape and potentially hold 36 individuals. Once a cheetah population is established in KNP, reintroduction of the lion or colonisation by tigers would not be detrimental for cheetah persistence.”

The Famous Five: cheetahs in Masai Mara.

The Famous Five: cheetahs in Masai Mara. | Photo Credit: PERCY FERNANDEZ

If the KNP is ready for cheetahs (they are expected to reach in a few weeks by August), it is more than ready for lions. By choosing the KNP and by prioritising the introduction of cheetahs over the translocation of lions, the government is once again refusing to follow the 2013 order. In addition, it is further delaying the translocation of lions by about two decades, as the introduced cheetahs are expected to take at least 15 years to settle down and reach a population of 20.

The action plan has an estimated expenditure of around Rs.90 crore for the first five years. By Indian conservation standards, this is an enormous investment. And all of this for something that is not even mentioned in the NWAP. Surprisingly though, the government has not complied with court orders to bury transmission lines underground in the habitats of the great Indian bustard on the grounds that this would be prohibitively expensive. There are barely 150 of these magnificent birds left now and collision with overhead power lines is a major cause of mortality.

The future of grasslands and other open ecosystems as well as of resident endangered species like the great Indian bustard, caracal and Asiatic lion is doomed if we are to depend on African cheetahs to conserve them. It is a pity that Indian ecologists and conservationists, with the support of foreign conservation institutions, especially from Namibia and South Africa, are actively involved in this poorly conceived and expensive project. It is a greater tragedy that society and the judiciary are largely watching in silence.

Ravi Chellam is a wildlife biologist and conservation scientist, and CEO, Metastring Foundation.

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