How a Nagpur scientist played a key role in bringing cheetahs to India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his birthday on September 17, released eight African cheetahs into an enclosure inside Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park as part of a project to reintroduce the big cat that was declared extinct in India in 1952. The project has required meticulous planning over the years and involved multiple stakeholders. One of them is Dr Pradnya Giradkar, a Nagpur-based scientist associated with the city’s Wildlife Conservation and Rural Development Society. She played a major role in clearing the legal hurdles for the translocation of the cheetahs from Namibia.

Giradkar is the first Indian to be trained by the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), a global institution working to save the wild cat, whose numbers worldwide are currently estimated to be only 7,100. In June 2011, she worked with Dr Laurie Marker, executive director of CCF, and underwent training in cheetah conservation.

India’s cheetah project was conceptualized in 2009. Marker held a series of meeting with specialists and scientists for implementation of the project. Ten sites were assessed between 2010 and 2012 after which Kuno National Park emerged as the potential habitat for the translocated cheetahs.

But challenges lay ahead. The first roadblock came when the Supreme Court, in May 2012, stayed the project, saying a foreign species could endanger the Indian breed of wild cats in Kuno. The court also opined that the African cheetah was genetically different from the Asian cheetah and may not survive in India. Giradkar and other wildlife scientists got down to gathering evidence that the cheetah could survive in the Indian climate. They received a shot in the arm in July 2013 when Dr Stephen O’Brien, a well-known Russian geneticist, sent Giradkar a letter.

In his letter, O’Brien stated that the genetic distinction between the Asiatic and African cheetahs was “real but almost negligible”, and that the African cheetah could survive well if provided with a suitable habitat and prey base. Following the clarification from O’Brien, a review petition was filed by the wildlife scientists in 2013 and approved by the SC. Finally the court gave its nod to the translocation project in January 2020 as a pilot program to reintroduce the African cheetah in India.

Giradkar says cheetahs are very adaptable and had a wide presence around the world until a century ago, including some areas in India. “They will be able to survive most of the climate conditions in India. In the parts of Africa where cheetahs are found, the temperatures can vary between very hot in the day to cold at night, and the cheetahs can adapt to the seasonal shifts,” she says.

Giradkar also says that cheetahs can contend with extreme rain and wet seasons in India, much like in Africa. “For hunting, they do well in open savannahs and grassland environments as also areas with moderate woody vegetation cover. Areas with tall grass or bushy areas enable them to remain undetected while stalking prey. I and the CCF believe the cheetahs will do very well on Indian landscape,” she says.

The 750 sq km area identified for the cheetahs at Kuno National Park can currently hold a maximum of 21 of these big cats. This can be increased by including the remaining part of the Kuno Wildlife Division (1,280 sq km) through prey restoration. Once restored, the larger landscape can hold approximately 36 cheetahs.

A team of CCF will support the Kuno National Park staff and field officers associated with the cheetah project for an indefinite period. Giradkar suggests that sustainable tourism can help mitigate potential conflicts between livestock farmers and cheetahs. Jobs and business opportunities for the local communities can be created by raising conservation awareness among indigenous communities, students and people through advocacy and leadership. “It is very important that enthusiastic and committed rangers, researchers and veterinarians be selected for the project. Through proper training, they will become India’s cheetah experts and be central to the success of the project,” she says.

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