Madhya Pradesh forest department is hoping to get the first lot of African cheetahs in Kuno National Park, by the end of this year. The much-awaited cheetah reintroduction project has been delayed due to multiple reasons, but not for long, the authorities believe.
Additional principal chief conservator of forests (APCCF-wildlife) Aseem Srivastava told THE WEEK that 14 cheetahs are expected to arrive from South Africa by the end of November or in December.
He said that they are awaiting the permission from Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). “We have already completed the application process and we are expecting the permission soon. Import of animals will be possible only after that nod,” Srivastava said.
The fencing work in the national park, which was delayed due to unprecedented flood in August this year, should be ready by the time the cheetahs arrive, Srivastava said.
Under the reintroduction project, African cheetahs were to be brought to the national park by November 1 this year to coincide with the foundation day of Madhya Pradesh. But COVID-19 wave in India and South Africa, floods in Sheopur district where the park is located, reported violence in South Africa and other factors delayed the project.
Srivastava said that the first lot will be followed by six cheetahs from Namibia.
The project took off after the Supreme Court approved it on January 28, 2020, on an experimental basis in a carefully chosen habitat. The apex court had directed that the reintroduction process is to be closely monitored to assess if the cat can adapt to Indian conditions. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had approached the court regarding introduction of African cheetahs to India.
Earlier, the Wildlife Institute of India in collaboration with the Wildlife Trust of India, assessed potential sites and, in 2010, recommended Kuno Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary (later given the status of national park) in Madhya Pradesh, Shahgarh landscape in Jaisalmer (Rajasthan) and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.
But, in 2013, the Supreme Court stayed the project, saying that it was an ideal habitat for the Asiatic lion. The stay was removed only in January 2020 and Kuno was selected as the first destination in India for the reintroduction.
The Asiatic cheetah was driven to extinction in India in 1952, with the last known one shot in Koriya forest in Chhattisgarh.
African cheetah, considered genetically similar to the Asiatic one, was favoured as seed stock for reintroduction and also got the nod from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
However, a section of experts continues to have doubts over the efficacy of the project and suitability of Kuno as home for African cheetahs, citing the differences between ecological set-up in Africa and Kuno, and the non-availability of suitable prey for the African cheetahs. They also point out that the project should not be called ‘reintroduction’ but ‘introduction’ of African cheetahs to India as they are different from the species that went extinct in India.