Why leave the Cheetah out?
A misleading petition in the Supreme Court will endanger already threatened species and habitats, writes Milind Pariwakam
The debate over the reintroduction of the cheetah in India has seen a few seemingly well-meaning but, nevertheless, vitriolic statements by its opponents. The battle, which saw proponents of lions attacking the cheetah reintroduction project, culminated with the Supreme Court ordering a stay on the import of specimens of the African sub-species (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) of the cheetah. The order was based on a petition, which can at best be said to rely selectively on a few points, to argue against the cheetah reintroduction. Moreover, the scientific facts and figures quoted in the petition are downright wrong.
SC petition against Cheetah Reintroduction
The petition to the Supreme Court opposes cheetah reintroduction on two major grounds. It relies on the International Union for the Conversation of Nature (IUCN) Guidelines that categorically warn against the introduction of alien and exotic species, and a scientific paper that cites certain genetic differences between the Asiatic and the African cheetah. Other points raised against cheetah reintroduction are that the National Wildlife Action Plan does not mention cheetah reintroduction and is against the reintroduction of exotic plants; each cheetah is going to cost the country Rs 2 crore; permission of the National Board of Wildlife was not sought; the budget for Project Tiger is a meagre Rs 80 crore for 600 protected areas; how European rabbits introduced in Australia are a serious invasive pest and the potential of the introduced cheetahs adding to human-animal conflict.
A closer look at the above points reveals a different picture. Is the petition based on facts or does it try to mislead the Supreme Court as far as the scientific facts and quoted figures are concerned?
IUCN Guidelines and sub-species
The IUCN Guidelines attached as part of the petition to the Supreme Court are actually an old IUCN position paper from 1987. What have been conveniently ignored, despite its easy availability on the Internet, are fresh IUCN guidelines that were developed in 1998 as a more comprehensive coverage of the various factors involved in re-introduction exercises. The latest guidelines define reintroduction as an attempt to establish a species back to its historical range. The cheetah was native to India and is not an exotic species. All cheetahs belong to the same species (Acinonyx jubatus) and thus there is no bar by the IUCN on reintroducing cheetahs to India. The guidelines also mention that a different sub-species (in this case the African cheetah) may be used for re-introduction, if “sufficient numbers of the same sub-species are not available”. A recent example is the North African red-necked ostrich (Struthio camelus camelus) that has been used for reintroduction when the Arabian ostrich (Struthio camelus syriacus) went extinct. The Indian race of the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) is extinct and the status of the Iranian race itself is precarious with numbers as low as 70. Therefore, the only specimens available in abundance are the cheetah from Africa as per the new IUCN guidelines.
The scientific paper by P Charruau, of University of Veterinary Medicine, Austria, and colleagues quoted by the petition says that the African and Asiatic sub-species diverged from each other and are genetically different. The scientific paper is very selectively quoted as saying that Iranian cheetahs should be used for reintroduction considering the genetic differences between the two sub-species. If the paper is read in its entirety, it in fact acknowledges that Iranian cheetahs are few in number and cannot be used, whereas those from Africa can actually be used as a source for reintroductions. The divergence of the two sub-species is negligible in this matter because current surviving wildlife species evolved millions of years ago and a few thousand years is like comparing Spaniards with Germans. Further, cheetahs in Africa have a higher genetic diversity, a key feature to prevent inbreeding, and therefore, better candidates for reintroduction.
Alien invasive species
Both the African and the Asiatic cheetah sub-species are very closely related with virtually similar physical characteristics, behavior, ecological roles and impacts. The petition mentions that many countries are having a serious problem with exotic invasive plants and are incurring extensive costs to eradicate them. If one talks science, European rabbit introductions in Australia would be more comparable to the Lantana infestation in India than the proposed feline reintroduction. The cheetah is not an alien or exotic species, having been present in the wild in India till the early 1950s. Further the highly damaging effect of invasive plants or rodents is due to their ability to multiply rapidly. Large mammals have inherently lower growth potential, than smaller mammals like rodents, and are thus hardly likely to see population explosions. If that were true then we wouldn’t have had such a problem saving tigers.
National Wildlife Action Plan
The National Wildlife Action Plan does not mention cheetah reintroduction, but that does not mean that it is barred. By the same standards, the action plan does not mention tiger reintroduction also, but that hasn’t stopped us from reintroducing tigers into Sariska and Panna or the gaur into Bandhavgarh. The National Board of Wildlife, in spite of being aware of the cheetah project, has not objected so far. Valuable and scarce resources spent on identifying potential cheetah habitat will go waste if the project is stopped on faulty grounds.
It is true that cheetahs may create human – animal conflict but reintroduction of lions to Kuno also has a far greater potential to create conflict since lions can and will prey on cattle and can potentially kill people, while cheetah can potentially only predate sheep and goats and there has never been any documented case of them attacking humans. We need to factor this and create conflict mitigation plans for Kuno, irrespective of cheetahs. Conflict mitigation is a must not only for the cheetah, but also for the tiger, lion, elephant, leopard and many other species. Fear of conflict has not stopped us from reintroducing other species like the rhinoceros, as the benefit for the species outweighs the risk, which is manageable if mitigation measures are implemented effectively.
Each cheetah is said to cost Rs 2 crore in the petition but the Cheetah Conservation Fund, Namibia, confirms that the cheetahs are to be donated free of cost. The bulk of the cheetah budget is primarily meant to secure habitats and majority of this amount is also to be used for voluntary village relocations from such habitats. Also, the Project Tiger budget is not Rs 80 crore as mentioned in the petition, and it is only for the 41 odd tiger reserves in the country. A look at the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) website reveals that the Project Tiger budget in the last 5 years was Rs 758 crore.
So what is the true picture and why the selective portrayal of certain points in the petition to the Supreme Court?
Conservation budgets: Conservationists argue that cheetah reintroduction may give a false sense of complacency among policy makers who would tend to think that any future extinction in the country can be reversed by re-introduction. This remains a valid concern, as reintroductions are complex and tend to be long-term interventions. The IUCN guidelines, however, advocate exactly this; a long-term focus to avoid potential problems and complacency. Another valid argument is that the scant money available for conservation in India is being frittered away without focusing on existing species and more urgent needs such as relocation from tiger reserves. The Tiger Task Force, set up after the Sariska debacle, estimated that approximately 20,000 families need to be relocated out of 28 tiger reserves. Tiger reserves now number around 41 and eight more, such as Nagzira, Sathyamagalam and Meghamalai, are in the pipeline. The need for village relocations will only increase to consolidate these tiger habitats. Against the real requirement of more than Rs 10,000 crore or so, the cheetah budget is a pittance.
In hindsight, the extinction of tigers in Sariska was a shock to the conservation community. As a result, a slew of tiger conservation initiatives have been initiated. Legal recognition of the NTCA, creation of new tiger reserves, formation of a Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, increased budgets and willingness to relocate villages are just a few examples and the government still continues with more initiatives every year. The status of the tiger, in spite of the increased budgets and new initiatives, continues to be precarious.
Maybe a similar but positive shock to the system in the form of cheetah reintroduction is required to revive endangered grassland, scrubland, thorn and open dry forest habitats. Small and yearly incremental changes in conservation budgets are negated by two constantly growing factors: inflation and human population. Perhaps what is required to save wildlife and natural habitats is a paradigm increase in conservation budgets and only radical shocks to the system can provide that, as seen with tigers after the Sariska episode.
Future of the cheetah and lion in India: Kuno has been earmarked for the lion reintroduction programme for the last 20 years but the Gujarat government has steadfastly refused to part with wild lions. In the absence of wild lions for a founder population in Kuno, the reintroduction of cheetahs into Kuno was a perfectly logical move. Lions would definitely benefit from having a satellite population in Kuno. The Supreme Court should put an immediate end to the Gujarat government’s reluctance to part with a few lions to start a satellite population in Madhya Pradesh. The cheetah can co-exist with the lion, as it does in Africa and did so in India. The lions did not make the cheetah extinct in India.
Importance of grasslands and dry open forests and the need for a flagship: Grasslands are classified as wasteland in India and as a result, are under-represented, ignored and do not enjoy protection under forest laws. Therefore, many species are close to extinction. The great Indian bustard and the florican are classic examples of neglected species with zero money allocation till date. Wolves, caracal, desert cat and many other grassland species are doomed to extinction because they have failed to attract the attention of policymakers over the years. The cheetah, a large carnivore, is charismatic and has all the qualities of a flagship species. The current battle in the Supreme Court itself proves the charisma of the cheetah. Reintroduction of cheetahs will help focus conservation efforts and resources towards endangered grassland, thorn forest and scrub habitats and benefit neglected species such as the wolf, caracal and desert cat. Let us not look at the cheetah reintroduction as an attempt to bring back one species but rather as an attempt to revive conservation in an endangered ecosystem, much of which is now classified as wasteland. Many protected areas, other than Kuno, identified by the Wildlife Institute of India in its cheetah survey can benefit from this move, in which the tiger will never be able to help or be used as flagship, for the simple matter that it does not exist in dry and arid grasslands-scrublands. Dr Asad Rahmani of the BNHS says that 50 percent of India’s threatened and near-threatened bird species depend on areas outside Tiger Reserves for their survival and thus lack the coverage of this flagship scheme.
The Supreme Court needs to review its decision to stay the import of cheetahs into India. They should re-consider both the new IUCN guidelines and the conclusions of the scientific paper on genetic differences in its entirety and not just the selective inclusion of certain parts aimed at preventing cheetah reintroduction into India.
The way forward: Tigers are the most charismatic of all species and let us not look at other equally important but less charismatic species through the lens of tiger conservation. Bustards, wolves and caracal in arid habitats, the hangul and sangai are examples of just a few species that are equally endangered, if not more, than tigers. Each species has an equal right to conservation attention and money. The betterment of one species should not negatively affect the other species. The MoEF, as the custodian of the country’s bio-diversity, is equally responsible for all species, especially the most gravely endangered.
Policymakers need to address these large gaps in conservation funding independently for all endangered species and the separate incremental cost of delaying such actions. Instead of forcing the supporters of each species to bicker over money, the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) must have a healthy deliberation on the future of ecosystems and species that lack the umbrella of a flagship, such as the tiger. A special session of the NBWL should focus just on the funding needs of all endangered species, including the tiger.
The Indian Government can afford to infuse crores as capital for a loss making Air India that benefits only rich pilots. At the same time, can it not invest in its natural capital that will benefit all its citizens for posterity?
Guy Mountfort, who led the original campaign to save tigers in the early 1970’s, wrote that the total cost of saving tigers then was equivalent to the cost of a single short-lived modern combat aircraft. He further asks which one of these represents a long-term investment for humanity. India now has the ability to spend over Rs 150,000 crores to buy new combat aircraft to bolster its national security. With the added interest due to the neglect of the past decades, the cost of preserving our ecological security is now probably less than a squadron of fighter-bombers and is definitely affordable.
The author is a wildlife biologist, an alumnus of the Post-Graduate Program for Wildlife Biology and Conservation at NCBS-TIFR, Bangalore, and has been involved with the cheetah reintroduction project in the past.