New Delhi: The central government told parliament this week that the Asiatic cheetah, once native to India, had become extinct mainly “due to hunting and habitat loss”. This creature was declared extinct in India in 1952.
The Indian government now plans to reintroduce the cheetah population to the country, for which the animal will be imported “on an experimental basis” from Namibia and South Africa.
India signed an agreement with Namibia on July 20 and the government told parliament that “its talks with South Africa are in the next stage”.
This is not the first attempt to import cheetahs into India. For example, there have been attempts to import cheetahs from Iran in the past and records are available that some of the former princely states had imported this animal from Africa.
Exploring the archives reveals how different conceptions of the cheetah, from an important hunting ally of India’s Mughal rulers to a less favorable view of the British Raj, have played a role in its decline .
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Cheetahs in the Mughal era
Considered the fastest land animals, cheetahs are the smallest members of the big cat family in size. They are not generally known to attack or hunt humans.
In his article Lions, Cheetahs and Others in the Mughal Landscape, wildlife historian and conservationist Divyabhanu Singh wrote that during the Mughal period there was a “significant” difference between the lion and the cheetah.
He wrote: “The first was something for him, whose main purpose was the royal game, which ended in a special way when he faced.” The cheetah, on the other hand, was captured and tamed and trained as a hunting tool.
Cheetahs were captured from the forest and trained to hunt or chase deer, and according to Divyabhanu Singh, the Mughals looked after them “very carefully”.
In the article he described how in 1572, Akbar took a cheetah named Chitra Nanjan hunting in what is now the area around the Jaipur airport and was so pleasantly surprised by the display of the ‘animal which he ordered to be asked to “bring a In front of him should be played a necklace of gems and a drum.
Other records show that Akbar collected 9,000 cheetahs during his reign from 1556 to 1605.
Cheetahs were well distributed across the continent and preferred open grasslands and scrub forests for their habitat, where they could freely pursue their prey.
However, Raza Kazmi, another wildlife historian, said these habitats were too sensitive to land use change, adapting to human needs.
He said: “When India was ruled by dynasties and empires, first the open lands were brought under the plough. There was so much interest in this that more and more land had to be brought into the ‘agriculture. But at the same time it is also true that in some areas the normal habitat of cheetahs continued even after their presence ended.
Open grasslands and scrub forests still exist in India, although their size is shrinking.
Conservationists say that one of the main reasons for the decline in the cheetah population during and after the Mughals was that the cheetah breed was not bred at that time.
Cheetahs are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity. In a shared 2019 paper shedding light on India’s cheetah extinction, Divyabhanu Singh and Kazmi found “the first and only example of cheetah breeding worldwide until the 20th century.” It was recorded by Emperor Jahangir in 1613.
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in the British era
By the time the British entered India, the population of Asiatic cheetahs had started to decline here.
Mahesh Rangarajan, environmental historian and chairman of the Ashoka Archives of Contemporary India at Ashoka University, says attitudes towards the cheetah changed slightly after the British arrived in India.
In the book ‘Nature and Nation’, he wrote: ‘Unlike South Asia, the British had an entirely different relationship with large wild mammals. As in most of Europe, organized campaigns against certain animals were carried out.
The game of killing big cats like lions and tigers was considered a challenge, while other smaller animals, including cheetahs, were “poofs to be killed.”
Rangarajan told ThePrint, “Killing cheetahs was not given much importance as they were not that big of a threat to humans. They weren’t even that big, so they weren’t considered a trophy.
Rangarajan also discovered that under colonial rule, large numbers of cheetahs were hunted for prizes, paying Rs 6 for a cub and Rs 18 for an adult. According to their research, between 1870 and 1925, an average of 1.2 cheetahs were killed as bounty each year. This figure is higher than the number of cheetahs that died between 1800 and 1950, which were 127 or whose statistical average was less than one per year.
In an article published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society in 1998, he wrote: “Bounty hunting may therefore have accelerated the decline in numbers in many areas where it is still present. Because of its relatively low densities, the removal of even small numbers could have an adverse effect on the minimum fertility of wild populations necessary for their survival.’
To compensate for the decline in cheetah numbers, some princely states began importing cheetahs from Africa in the first half of the 20th century. According to Divyabhanu Singh and Kazmi, the first instance of this is found in 1918 and this practice continued until the early 1950s.
back to the forest
A 1947 popular portrait of Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Surguja, in which he stands with his gun and three dead leopards lying at his feet, broadly It is believed to be the image of the last three Asiatic cheetahs in India.
But Kazmi has recorded a cheetah sighting in Jharkhand much later in 1975.
Some new cheetahs are now being brought to India from Namibia and South Africa, but whether their numbers will ever increase enough to be released into the wild is a question only time will tell.
“African biologists have been able to breed some cheetahs in captivity and are confident that their protocols can be adopted in India as well,” Kazmi said. The possibility is being expressed that they will adopt their new residence and their number will stabilize.
He added: “But can we create a population of free-ranging cheetahs that, like other big cats, can roam freely across interconnected landscapes? I’m not so sure.
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