Explained: How cheetahs went extinct in India, and the plan to reintroduce them into the wild

A 10 sq km enclosure has reportedly been readied in the national park and would soon house at least 6 cheetahs. A senior official from the ministry said that a plan is underway to introduce 8-10 cheetahs every year.

The cheetah is the only large carnivore to have gone extinct in India, primarily due to hunting and habitat loss. Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Korea, Madhya Pradesh, is widely believed to have the last three recorded Cheetahs in India in 1947. In 1952, the Indian government officially declared the Cheetah extinct in the country.

Hunting with the cheetahs

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For centuries, hunting was a favored activity for royalty in India. The cheetah, which was relatively easy to tame and less dangerous than tigers, was frequently used by Indian nobility for sport-hunting. The earliest available record for cheetahs being used for hunts in India, comes from the 12th century Sanskrit text Manasollasa, which was produced by the Kalyani Chalukya ruler, Someshvara III (reigned from 1127-1138 CE).

Cheetah coursing, or the use of trained cheetahs for hunting, according to the wildlife expert Divyabhanusinh, had become a highly specialized activity in the medieval period and was carried out on a large scale during the Mughal empire. Emperor Akbar, who reigned from 1556-1605, was particularly fond of the activity and is recorded to have collected 9,000 cheetahs in total.

Abul Fazl, Akbar’s chief courtier, noted that the emperor had devised a new method to capture cheetahs. In earlier times, people would dig deep pits for the animals to fall into, however they would at times break their legs in the process. Akbar is said to have solved the problems by digging shallow pits with an automatic trap door which would close after they fell inside.

The cheetahs were then trained so that they could participate in royal hunts and according to Abu1 Fazl, the process took 3-4 months.

Emperor Jahangir (ruled from 1605-1627) took after his father and is said to have caught more than 400 antelopes by cheetah coursing in the pargana of Palam – the site near New Delhi’s international airport today.

Divyabhanusinh notes that the demand for cheetahs for hunting purposes was so high that specific areas, which had a high population, were designated for their capture, such as Rajasthan’s Jodhpur and Jhunjhunu, Punjab’s Bathinda and Haryana’s Hisar.

The capture of wild cheetahs for hunting and the difficulty to breed them in captivity was leading to a decline in the cheetah population, even before the entry of the British.

Near extinction under the British Raj

Unlike the Mughals, the British were not very interested in coursing with the cheetahs. Rather, they preferred to hunt big game, such as tigers, bison and elephants. Under the British Raj, forests were extensively cleared, so as to develop settlements and to set up indigo, tea and coffee plantations. This further resulted in the loss of habitat for big cats, contributing to their decline.

While tigers were the choice animals for the British shikar, Indian and British “sport” hunters also targeted cheetahs. There is evidence to suggest that British officials considered the animal as “vermin” and also distributed monetary rewards for the killing of cheetahs from at least 1871 onwards.

In Sindh, the reward for killing a cheetah cub was Rs 6, and it was Rs 12 for an adult. Environmental historian Mahesh Rangarajan argues that the administrative policy of the British Raj played a “major role in its (cheetah) extermination in India”. The rewards for bounty hunting likely caused the decline of cheetahs, as even the removal of a small number would have negatively affected the ability of wild cheetahs to reproduce even at the lowest level required for survival. As a result, wild cheetahs became very rare in India by the 20th century.

International trade of cheetahs

Unlike the British, Indian elites and rulers of princely states continued the old practice of hunting with cheetahs in the 1920s. The leading figures among them were the Maharaja of Kolhapur and the Maharaja of Bhavnagar. However by this time it had become, difficult to find cheetahs in the wild.

While it had been suggested that this would be the first trans-continental shifting of a large carnivorous animal to India, Divyabhanusinh has argued that purchases of cheetahs from Africa took place in the 20th century. He says that the princely states of Bhavnagar and Kolhapur were the leading importers of cheetahs between 1918-1939.

Just before the start of World War I, Maharaja Bhavsinhji II, who ruled Bhavnagar state from 1896-1919, sent his Superintendent of Police, Krishna Chandra Sinh to Kenya to buy a cheetah. By the 1930s, the Bhavnagar state was said to own 32 imported cheetahs.

Cheetahs continued to be imported to independent India in small numbers, especially for exhibitions in zoos.

Between 1949-1989, around 7 zoos owned 25 cheetahs, all of which originally came from foreign countries. Divyabhanusinh notes that almost all would have been most likely obtained from Africa.

The demand for reintroduction

If the re-introduction of cheetahs into the wild is successful, it would mark the culmination of a decades-long process.

The State Wildlife Board of Andhra Pradesh was the first to suggest the policy in 1955, on an experimental basis in two districts of the state.

In the 1970s, the Department of Environment formally requested Iran, which had 300 Asiatic cheetahs at the time, for some cheetahs. The Shah of Iran was deposed before any deal could be reached.

There are two sub-species of cheetahs recognized today, the Asiatic (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) and the African (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus). However, the ecologist Ghazala Shahabuddin argues that it is still debatable if there is a biological basis for their differentiation, as cheetahs across continents have been seen to be genetically comparable.

This had led Divyabhanisinh to argue that the introduction of the African cheetah would not pose a threat to the Indian ecology.

Attempts to bring cheetahs to India were revived once more in 2009, when the Ministry of Environment and Forests, headed then by Congress’s Jairam Ramesh, and the Wildlife Trust of India conducted a meeting to discuss the feasibility of cheetah reintroduction. Several sites were chosen, of which Kuno-Palpur National Park was seen as the most suitable.

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According to the ecologist Ghazala Shahabuddin, this was because the area had a large habitat area available and significant investments had already been made to displace the villagers inhabiting the site.

The Supreme Court in 2010 stayed the order to reintroduce cheetah to Kuno- Palpur because the National Board for Wildlife had not been privy to the matter. The court said that priority should be given to the reintroduction of the Asiatic lion, which is only found in Gir National Park, Gujarat.

In 2020, while responding to a plea by the government, the Supreme Court announced that African cheetahs could be introduced in a “carefully decided location” on an experimental basis.

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