The Asiatic cheetah is the only large carnivore that has been extirpated in India. The word “cheetah” is derived from the Sanskrit term “chitraka,” which translates to “spotted.” The cheetah’s demise in the country has mainly been blamed on overhunting. Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh shot the last of the Asiatic cheetahs on the Indian subcontinent in 1947.
There are currently fewer than 100 Asiatic cheetahs in existence, and all are found in Iran. Experts also agree that distinctive traits of the animal, such as ease in taming and inability to breed in captivity, led to its extinction. Breeding cheetahs in captivity was so difficult that Emperor Jahangir recorded the first instance of the achievement in 1613 in the book Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. The incredible accomplishment remained the only instance of a captive breed cheetah up to the 20th century.
History of the Asiatic Cheetah in India
The earliest evidence of the Asiatic Cheetah dates back to 2500 BCE to 2300 BCE. Cave paintings of the cheetah can be found in Khairabad and Kharvai in the Chambal valley in Madhya Pradesh. According to an article published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History, the animal’s historic range in the country was from Bengal to Punjab and Rajputana and from Central India to the Deccan. Outside India, the Asiatic cheetah’s historical range extended from Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Palestine to Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. To the north, its range extended to the Russian Turkestan and Trans-Caspia. In India, the animal occupied a diverse range of habitats, including arid and semiarid land, scrubland, and bushland. In the period towards extinction, the subspecies had been pushed to the edges of sal forests in central-east India.
Domestication and Demise of the Indian Cheetah
Manasollasa, a 12th-century chronicle on the activities of King Someshvara III court, is the earliest reference of domestication of cheetahs for sport. The sport of coursing is thought to have gained popularity on the Indian subcontinent in the medieval ages. There are numerous records of cheetahs that were trained to hunt blackbucks (one of the fastest mammals in India) for princes and nobles. The cheetah’s inability to breed in captivity, however, meant that they had to be continuously trapped from the wild to maintain numbers held by royalty and increase them as the sport grew popular.
Young cheetah cubs were targeted due to greater ease in domesticating them. Over the centuries, cheetah hunting and trapping became increasingly popular, putting the wild population under considerable pressure. Emperor Akbar is thought to have acquired 9,000 cheetahs in the course of his 49-year reign in the 16th century. By the 18th century, the cheetah population in India had begun showing signs of strain due to the constant and intensive trapping of the animal. In an article published in 1901, a railway officer by the name Charles E. Clay is said to have bought a cheetah cub in 1896 from “junglewallahs” in South Canara, which he raised for hunting in the Deccan. Purchasing a cheetah at the time cost at least ten rupees. The price, however, rose steadily depending on the level of training the animal had received.
According to Major Henry Shakespear, a hunter and late Commandant of the Nagpur Irregular Force in the 1840s, a trained cheetah cost about 150 to 250 rupees. When the British consolidated control over India and began recording cheetah occurrence, the animals were already very scarce. According to a paper by Divyabhanusinh and Raza Kazmi, there were only 414 written references of individuals between 1772 and 1997. Some experts also believe that the cheetah’s docile nature is a critical factor that worked against the animal. They believe that ease in taming the animal was comparable to having a dog in the household. The majestic cat never invoked fear like lions, tigers, or leopards.
Classified as Vermin
Following the classification of the cheetah as vermin in India, the British began offering rewards for their eradication. According to the 1998 Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society by Mahesh Rangarajan, an environmental historian, rewards were offered for the eradication of both adult cheetahs and their cubs from 1871 onwards. An animal that had served under its human master for centuries was now being hunted like vermin.
Some disdain for cheetahs is hard to comprehend as there is only one record of a human fatality in the country as a result of a cheetah attack. O.B. Irvine, an agent of Governor in Visakhapatnam, is the only person who has ever died due to a cheetah attack. He was mauled in 1880 during a coursing hunt by a captive cheetah belonging to the Raja of Vizianagaram. Studies also show that at least 200 cheetahs were killed in the colonial period due to conflict with herders.
It is believed the last three cheetahs were shot by Maharajah, the ruler of the princely state of Madhya Pradesh, in 1947. According to a 2009 report by The Tribune, Maharaja is also infamous for shooting 1,360 tigers. Between 1951 and 1952, the cheetah was considered extinct by the Indian government. There are, however, reports indicating that there were rare sightings of the cheetah well into the early 1970s. Two were reportedly sighted in the Koriya and Surquja forests in 1967 and 1968. Another was also reportedly sighted around the village of Danto Kalan in 1975. In Pakistan, the last remnants of the species in the country survived until the late 1990s. In 1997 a cheetah was reportedly shot in the Pakistani province of Balochistan in the Chagai plains. Another female Cheetah and her two cubs were also spotted around Ormara in the same year.
Reintroducing Cheetahs in India
Since the early 1970s, India has made several attempts to bring back the Indian cheetah. The first attempt involved negotiating with Iran, which at the time had 300 Asiatic cheetahs for a number of them to be taken to India. Iran, on the other hand, wanted the Asiatic lion and the tiger, two big cat species it had lost in the past century. The trade would, however, never materialize partially because cheetah numbers in Iran were critically low and were dispersed in the rugged hinterlands spanning thousands of square miles. Another reason for the failed trade was the deposition of the Shah of Iran, which effectively froze the negotiations.
Conservationists have discussed the prospects of reintroducing of the Cheetah to India and have agreed that India indeed has a strong case. Seven sites, including sanctuaries, national parks, and other open areas in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat, have been identified as potential homes of the cheetah. The sites are to undergo extensive surveys to determine the particular state of the habitat, risks of man-cheetah conflict, and the availability of prey in the region to gauge their suitability for cheetahs. India plans to reintroduce the African Cheetah instead of the continent appropriate Asiatic Cheetah found only in Iran since they are quite abundant on the African continent. Conservationist experts such as Dr. Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, believe that the reintroduction will not be easy but is certainly doable. In India, the cheetah would primarily prey on gazelle and blackbuck with the largest herd of blackbuck in the country numbering about 2,000 individuals. The herds are, however, preyed on by the wolf. According to experts, the cheetah could also live off smaller prey. Proponents of the plan argue that the reintroduction of the cheetah will help in the recovery of grassland ecosystems in India. A statement by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in 2010 noted that the reintroduction of the fastest land animal in India would help restore grasslands just like tigers restore forest ecosystems, and the snow leopard restores mountain ecosystems.
Opposition on the Reintroduction Program
There are, however, some conservationists who believe that the hasty reintroduction of the Cheetah to India will result in cheetahs living in semi-captive conditions as opposed to being completely free in the wild. Conservationists also note that cheetahs require several thousand square miles of habitat free of livestock but with abundant prey base of antelope to survive. India’s chequered history of animal reintroduction is also not so encouraging. In the 1950s, lions reintroduced to the Chandraprabha sanctuary ended up being poached. In the 1920s, tigers that had been reintroduced to Dungarpur were all shot by the end of the 1950s. Even captive breeding programs have, at times, failed. In the 1990s, American zoos bred lion-tailed monkeys in captivity to release them back to the Western Ghats in India. The monkeys were, however, continually poached, and their habitats were logged, which frustrated conservationists across the world. In 2013, the Supreme Court also quashed the government’s decision to introduce Cheetahs obtained from Africa to the Kuno Palpur sanctuary situated in Madhya Pradesh. The court noted that a detailed study had not been conducted on the introduction of a foreign species in India. It also noted that designated expert bodies had not been consulted.
Hope That the Cheetah Will Roam the Indian Grasslands Again
Recently the Supreme Court agreed to reconsider its previous decision after a plea was brought by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, giving hope to Indians eager to see the cheetah make a comeback. Apart from improving the ecosystem, the cheetah will also boost eco-tourism and increase the revenue base for local communities once the reintroduction is complete. Local communities will, however, need to be educated to coexist with wildlife, particularly cheetahs. The country could emulate Namibia’s cheetah conservation programs on areas such as training and public awareness.