Strategies to reintroduce the cheetah in the country's wild were discussed threadbare at a workshop on Wednesday with some experts supporting the idea even as the government said an in-depth study is required before taking a decision on the translocation of spotted cats.
"African and Asian cheetahs are similar in nature and have same genetic make-up. So India can have the animal from South Africa if it is not getting from Iran (which has already refused to part with its Asian cheetah)," noted cheetah expert Stephen J O Brien of Laboratory of Genomic Diversity of National Cancer Institute said.
Cheetah experts from Iran, South Africa, Wildlife Institute of India (WII), National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) among others are attending the two-day consultative meeting on cheetah translocation.
Environment minister Jairam Ramesh sounded cautious. In a message he said, "There are risk indubitable. However, I feel that we owe it to the animal...that was once so ubiquitous in our country to at least analyse the pros and cons, examine the advantages and risks in a dispassionate and professional manner drawing on the best international expertise in the subject."
Rajesh Gopal, member secretary of National Tiger Conservation Authority, said "Several issues which we face with tiger conservation are relevant in case of cheetah as well. We started with the wistful thinking of providing buffer areas to tiger reserves but even after over 30 years we have not been able to do so. Poaching and man-animal conflicts have taken toll on the striped animal."
WTI, which has conceived the idea is exploring the possibility of introducing cheetah in India from South Africa where around 10,000 species are left in the wild, felt that if the plan is seriously considered, cheetahs can be soon be found leaping in the wild.
This project would in no way affect the efforts to conserve the tiger, nor for that matter any other species or protected areas. In fact, reintroduction of the cheetah could spearhead rehabilitation of degraded grasslands and stimulate public interest in conservation of areas of proposed relocation, which are inhabited by other less glamorous species in need of protection," said WTI chairman M K Ranjitsinh, who leads the cheetah reintroduction project.
WII has already identified 11 possible habitats in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Jharkhand where cheetahs can be re-populated in the next 30 years.
"Self-sustainable population should be our main aim. Desert National Park and Talchappar in Rajasthan, Bhal, Narayan Sarovar Sanctuary and Banni sanctuary in Gujarat, Kuno and Nauradhi in Madhya Pradesh can also be considered. But efforts need to be taken to relocate people and ensure healthy prey-base before the animal can be released here," Y Jhala, a senior scientist with WII said.
According to Ranjitsinh, a roadmap for reintroducing the spotted cats in the wild will be prepared and submitted to the environment ministry for further action.
Strongly favouring the project, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) director Asasd Rahmani said identifying a species like cheetah is always an advantage to saving disappearing grassland and other endangered animals