Background

The conservation of endangered carnivores is critical to maintaining the structure and balance of diverse ecosystems. Today, drivers of ecosystem change such as climate change, overexploitation of habitats, and land-use change are pushing many vulnerable species towards extinction at alarming rates. The Asiatic cheetah is one such species that roamed the grasslands of India before it was declared extinct in the country by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1952. In January 2020, the Supreme Court of India gave the government the green light to introduce the cheetah in the country. The Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus), which was the subspecies present in the Indian subcontinent is at the brink of global extinction, with only around fifty of them left in Iran. However, the cheetah population brought for introduction belongs to a different subspecies, namely, the African subspecies (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) from Namibia, thus sparking numerous controversies regarding the viability of such a project. The project has also brought forth discussions surrounding the existing gaps in India’s wildlife conservation laws and policies.

Translocation as a Technique Of Conservation

Today, the world is facing a biodiversity crisis. Nearly a million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades. In this context, the technique of translocating a species from one area to another is being increasingly used. The IUCN in its 2013 guidelines  recognised the need to deliberately move species from one location to another in order to achieve conservation objectives in light of climate change. It is an efficacious way to promote the recovery of threatened species and establish viable populations in their natural surroundings. Concomitantly, the IUCN also urges countries not to proceed with introduction projects where the risks are high or uncertainties remain about their consequences.

For example, the translocation of gray wolves (Canis lupus) to Yellowstone National Park, the introduction of the Victorian eastern barred bandicoot (Perameles gunnii) to the French Island of Victoria, and multiple translocations of Brown bears across Europe have assisted in reviving species. However, there are also instances of failed translocations, which, in cases of a presently endangered species, can prove detrimental to its survival, and can have dangerous cascading effects on global biodiversity. One such example is the translocation project in Sariska Tiger Reserve which is a big blot on big cat conservation in India as it lost all its tigers to poaching and involved the operations of powerful business lobbies under the radar.

Performing a Balancing Act

Climate change is rapidly changing ecological habitats. Several species are responding to such changes in unpredictable ways, thus making it extremely difficult to foresee their movement patterns. Therefore, the last place in which a species was found may not be the best habitat for its return. Cheetahs are fast movers who roam dry grasslands and open forests, coming in frequent contact with human settlements. Natural calamities, overgrazing of livestock, mining, canals and dams have led to degradation and loss of grassland habitats which are crucial to the survival of the cheetah population. The nature and composition of these grasslands in India is still relatively unknown, and climate-induced changes make them harder to study.

As per the Supreme Court’s latest order in January, the African cheetahs are to be released experimentally in a carefully chosen habitat and monitored to see whether they can adapt to Indian conditions. In this regard, factoring in the unpredictable effects of such a release on native flora and fauna is of paramount importance. The Court noted that in case of any difficulties at the location, the individuals would be moved to another forest that is more habitable. Experts must keep in mind that besides behavioural monitoring, the programme must also monitor demographic, genetic, health, mortality, socio-economic and cultural changes.

Further in an attempt to create ideal conditions, efforts to protect other critically endangered native species such as the Great Indian Bustard, the Bengal Florican, Asiatic Lion, Wild Buffalo, Dugong, the Manipur Brow and Antlered Deer, may take a back seat and decrease resources at hand. The Supreme Court acknowledged such misplaced priorities in 2013, when it noted that crores of rupees had been spent by the government to introduce the Asiatic lion to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, a project that still remains incomplete. The Court opined that the lion must therefore, be the government’s top priority and the African cheetahs being a foreign species should not be introduced without conducting a detailed study. A wrong move can affect the focal species, their associated communities, and ecosystem functions in both source and destination areas. On the other hand, a successful translocation can help improve tourism and livelihood prospects for the inhabitants of those regions. It will also teach us lessons of human-animal coexistence, as seen in the model adopted to conserve the snow leopard  in the Himalayas.

Cheetahs require a suitably large habitat to maintain a viable population, sufficient numbers of suitable prey, and low levels of hunting by humans and other animals. In order to provide this, experts will have to analyse changes in human activity and responses of communities to the project. Insufficient sensitisation among local communities and a lack of governmental measures to create sustainable livelihood alternatives for them cannot garner local support which is essential to avoid man-animal conflict. Political bureaucracy and conflicts between ministries of government will only exacerbate the problem.

The Source Population Debate

The government went ahead with the African cheetah translocation after talks with Iran failed to procure the Asian subspecies. Research from the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad suggests that there is an evolutionary gap of nearly a hundred thousand years between them. However there still seems to be some confusion surrounding the phylogenetic closeness between the Asian and African cheetahs.

Some believe that the decision to introduce the African cheetah, a foreign subspecies, is a move that possesses little value. They argue that introduced animals should be genetically close to the original lost population to retain adaptations that have accumulated over the years. Other conservationists believe that stressing too much on a ‘local is best’ approach cannot create sufficient genetic variation and evolutionary potential because individuals sourced from more geographically and ecologically separate populations may harbour adaptations that more closely match the environment of the focal restoration site today, and into the future. However, in the present case, the Iranian cheetahs are not ideal candidates because of their endangered status, their precarious health, and present isolation into multiple small subpopulations. The IUCN translocation guidelines do not provide straightjacket answers but only state that genetic considerations in founder selection must be case-specific, selected based on objective criteria such as phylogenetic closeness, similarity in appearance, ecology and behaviour to the extinct form. Thus, in the absence of a conclusive study, currently, there is no method to evaluate the adaptability of the African cheetahs to their new environments and responses to their surroundings.

In Dubio Pro NaturaAdopting a Precautionary Approach

Ultimately, the revival of the cheetah population in India is a lifelong commitment. An ill-thought-out decision at this juncture could lead to a failed conservation experiment with catastrophic consequences for a presently threatened species. The success of this project depends on making a series of strategic, informed and well-researched choices that favour the long-term survival of the global cheetah population. This involves cooperating with national and transnational stakeholders, bearing in mind the best possible outcome for the ecosystem.

Ashna D is a penultimate year law student at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi (NUALS), with a keen interest in wildlife conservation law and policy. She is also a researcher and Blog Editor at the Centre for Environment & Law, NUALS. Email: ashnad96@gmail.com.


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