Cheetahs to Return to India's Grasslands under Multimillion-pound Plan

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Cheetahs to Return to India's Grasslands under Multimillion-pound Plan

By Rhys Blakely on

The Mogul emperor Akbar was said to own a thousand of the beasts as part of his 16th-century hunting retinue. Since then, however, India’s cheetahs have turned from hunter to quarry — the last three known were shot by the Maharajah of Surguja in 1947.

That may now change, with plans revealed by the Indian Government to reintroduce the world’s fastest land animal to the sub-continent.

The Asiatic cheetah, once common in India, has been driven to the brink of global extinction

A meeting of international experts is to be held in Rajasthan in September. It will draw up a preliminary budget, likely to be millions of pounds, to cover the import of cheetahs from Africa and the foundation of a “breeding nucleus” site, from which the animals can be introduced to other areas of India.

“We have to get [cheetahs] from abroad to repopulate the species. We soon hope to do so,” said Jairam Ramesh, the Minister of State for Environment and Forests.

Known in the days of the Raj as “hunting leopards”, the Asiatic cheetah, once common in India and prized by aristocrats for its ability to bring down antelope, has been driven to the brink of global extinction.

Just a handful of the subspecies survive, mainly in the Kavir desert of Iran. The fall of the Shah in 1979 stymied India’s hopes of importing a breeding pair from there. Since then, the Islamic Republic’s leaders have rebuffed Indian requests even for a sample of tissue to use in a cloning experiment.

Like their Asiatic cousins, African cheetahs stalk prey in semi-arid, partially forested grasslands. Experts hope that their introduction will encourage better husbandry in the areas, found in states such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. M. K. Ranjitsinh, the chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, said: “Suitable habitats are abundant in India, but are being managed terribly. The cheetah could be an important symbol, a lever to help protect even rarer species in the same areas.”

Wildlife lovers are unlikely to be reassured, however, by India’s record of big cat conservation.

Mr Ramesh admitted on Monday that the “rampant killing of tigers” continued, despite a £93 million emergency plan to protect India’s national animal, whose population has shrunk from 40,000 a century ago to just over 1,400.

“The forest guards who are supposed to protect tigers are underpaid, under-equipped and undertrained,” said Milind Pariwakam, a tiger expert. “As a result, we regularly receive intelligence reports of tiger skins for sale.”

The tiger’s plight raises questions over whether India will dedicate sufficient resources to the cheetah, which has a notoriously weak immune system, high rates of cub mortality and demanding territorial habits. Around 12,000 cheetahs remain in the wild in Africa.

Supporters of the cheetah plans can, at least, point to one success story. The Gir forest in Gujarat is the last redoubt of the Asiatic lion. The wild population is now estimated to number around 350.

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