Manoj Misra

Meme creators would have been more charitable, even congratulatory, if Prime Minister Narendra Modi had released a pride of Asiatic lions, instead of exotic African cheetahs, into Kuno national park on his birthday. The event would have been surprisingly delayed but the outcome would have been apt for the park, which has been waiting as the lions’ designated second home for more than two decades.

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In April 2013, even the Supreme Court had directed Gujarat to release some of these lions, from the state’s famous Gir area, within six months – but to no avail. Instead, now comes the cheetah, and that too from Namibia.

All of this is hugely problematic – and probably in the teeth of Indian wildlife law.

Lions in Kuno

Kuno sanctuary, later a national park, in north-west Madhya Pradesh was first identified as a suitable second home for the critically endangered Asiatic lions after a ‘Population and Habitat Viability Analysis’ workshop held in Baroda on October 18-21, 1993. Finding such a home was important from a species survival perspective: the lions of Gir national park constituted a single population and they had been declared critically endangered on several counts.

One of them was the threat of a disease wiping them out because this population lacked the genetic diversity to adapt to and evade the illness. In the 1970s, for example, canine distemper virus outbreaks had killed a large number of lions in Tanzania’s Serengeti national park

Detailed studies conducted later by researchers at the Wildlife Institute of India confirmed Kuno to be the most preferred site. (The other options included the Darrah-Jawaharsagar and the Sitamata Sanctuaries in Rajasthan.) After this, in 1994, the Madhya Pradesh forest department prepared a 20-year (1995-2015) lion reintroduction plan in active consultation with the Government of India. The latter later funded the plan’s implementation, with scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India monitoring the habitat.

The government relocated 24 villages, inhabited primarily by the Saharia Adivasis, from the core area of the sanctuary – whose area itself had been enlarged from 345 sq. km to 1,268 sq. km. In 2018, the sanctuary became a national park.

Ironically, and unfortunately, despite the whole process of finding a second home for the Asiatic lions having begun in Gujarat with the active support and participation of the forest department there, both the Madhya Pradesh forest department and the Indian government failed to include the Government of Gujarat early. This proved to be a big mistake.

At a project review meeting in Delhi in 2004, the chief wildlife warden of Gujarat said, “There was no commitment on the part of the state of Gujarat for providing lions.” Soon the state’s forest minister said, “There is no need to shift lions from Gir”. The deadlock couldn’t be resolved even at the 2008 meeting of the National Board for Wildlife. Notably, a 2012 meeting of Gujarat’s state board of wildlife held that “Asiatic lion being a ‘family member’ is beyond and higher than the ‘scientific reasoning’”.

Politics had clearly overtaken the long-term survival of a critically endangered wildlife species.

The matter was ultimately decided in 2013 by the Supreme Court – with directions to Gujarat to move some of its Asiatic lions into Kuno within six months. The order remains unimplemented to date despite all the concerned stakeholders agreeing way back in 2004 itself that conditions in Kuno were conducive to the big cats.

Cheetahs in Kuno

The cheetah reportedly went extinct in India sometime in the early 1950s. Since then, this fact has weighed heavy as a millstone around the neck of India’s wildlife conservation fraternity. In the 1990s, there were vain efforts made to procure a few Asiatic cheetahs from Iran in exchange for a few Asiatic lions. The matter stood there until 2009.

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Then, conservationist M.K. Ranjitsinh wrote a letter to then environment minister Jairam Ramesh. The letter had followed a two-day workshop on the possible reintroduction of cheetahs in India, held on September 9-10 2009 in Gajner, Rajasthan. Like the 1993 workshop for the Asiatic lion, this idea also had wide national and international participation.

The Wildlife Institute of India and the Wildlife Trust of India prepared a joint report in 2010. It became the basis of further action in the matter. The report suggested the introduction of African cheetahs into one of three shortlisted habitats: the Kuno and the Nauradehi sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh and the Shahgarh landscape in Rajasthan.

These three sites had been picked based on several potential habitats spread across the states of Uttar Pradesh (Kaimur Sanctuary), Chattisgarh (Guru Ghasidas national park), Madhya Pradesh (Sanjay national park, Dubri sanctuary, Nauradehi sanctuary, Kuno Palpur sanctuary),  Rajasthan (Shahgarh landscape, Desert national park) and Gujarat (Banni grasslands and Kutch wildlife sanctuary).

Perhaps the report’s strangest part was that it blurred the technical distinction between ‘introduction’ and ‘reintroduction’ by speaking of cheetahs from Africa and from Iran in the same sentence. An African Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) is exotic to India and so bringing and releasing it here would be ‘introduction’. The Asiatic cheetah from Iran (Acinonyx jubatus venticus) is the subspecies that was found in India, so bringing it would be ‘reintroduction’.

Protocols for the two procedures are significantly different and this fact should have been considered carefully by the report’s authors.

More intriguingly, the authors justified bringing cheetahs to India based on its ability to enhance tourism prospects and that the “cheetah as a flagship [species] would evoke a greater focus on the predicament of the much-abused dryland ecosystems, and the need to manage them”.

This raises important questions: is the Kuno habitat indeed appropriate for the African cheetah, both in terms of habitat conditions and the prey base available there? And if ‘iconic’ species are really the key to saving our dry grasslands ecosystems, why are extant but threatened species like great Indian bustards, wolves and blackbucks not considered enough for the same purpose?

Many more such ponderables linger.

But now that African cheetahs from Namibia have already arrived and have been introduced to Kuno national park, we must turn to a problem under Indian and international wildlife law.

The law catches up

There are four issues.

First, cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) are listed in Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act (WLPA) 1972. Will an African Cheetah, which is (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus), a subspecies different from the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus veranicus), automatically fall within a species-wide listing under the WLPA?

If yes, then has its ‘hunting’ – a term that includes capture and release actions – been permitted by the relevant statutory authority (chief wildlife warden) after approval from the Indian government? The question is perplexing because the African cheetah is an exotic animal that authorities in India can’t be expected to regulate based on conditions established by law in India.

This matters to the second point because the international movement of wild endangered animals falls under the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Agreement, to which India is signatory. If African cheetahs are not ‘wild animals’ under the WLPA, then its international transfer would have been subject to CITES requirements.

Did government officials obtain CITES authorisation in Namibia as well as in India before bringing African cheetahs to India? We don’t know if the Government of Namibia did indeed issue a CITES permit to export cheetahs to India. It is also doubtful (subject to confirmation) if there is an Indian customs post at the Gwalior airport where officials processed the CITES clearance.

Third, is the cheetah enclosure in Kuno national park a zoo?

A ‘zoo’ in Indian wildlife law is any establishment that holds captive animals for exhibition to the public. Obviously the African cheetahs in Kuno are captive. The enclosure in which they will be kept is also meant to allow public-viewing (otherwise wherefrom tourism enhancement!). So the cheetah enclosure in Kuno is technically a zoo, even if temporarily, since the plan is to release them into an area without fences after a month.

And is the construction of such a facility, even if temporary, legally permissible within a national park?

In a letter dated June 8, 2022, and addressed to state governments, the Union environment ministry said that government zoos in forest areas could be established after due approval procured from the Central Zoo Authority. However, the letter added, zoos should be avoided in protected areas (including national parks) and only in exceptional cases could they be located on the fringes of buffer zones.

So, since the cheetah enclosure in Kuno national park seems to be a zoo, is it on the fringes of the park’s buffer zone and did park authorities receive the approval of the Central Zoo Authority?

Fourth, what does the law say about the introduction of exotic animals into a national park?

In the WLPA, there are clear provisions for grant of permit regarding removal of a wild animal from a national park for a zoo, but there is nothing on the record to deal with the question of an ‘introduction’ of an exotic animal into either space.

Of course, today, a state can set up a government zoo on the fringes of the buffer zone of a national park, where perhaps exotic animals could also be kept after prior approval received from the Central Zoo Authority. But those animals kept in the zoo can’t be released into the wild – as Kuno has planned to do with the African cheetahs.

(It also merits asking whether a mere letter can replace a provision missing from a legal statute like the WLPA.)

One hopes that the authorities thoroughly considered and resolved all these issues before Prime Minister Modi released the African cheetahs.

The case of the 33 studies

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Interestingly, note that a meeting of the Union environment ministry’s expert committee formed for the lion ‘reintroduction’ project was held at Kuno national park in December 2016. Here, a representative of the Gujarat forest department also participated. According to the minutes of the meeting, the Gujarat government was not opposed to moving the Asiatic lions as long as researchers conducted all the 33 assessments required by the 2013 IUCN guidelines for wildlife relocation.

These assessments were designed to determine whether, in this case, Kuno could be a suitable home for the Asiatic  lions. They included issues like habitat status, prey base, vegetation cover and local weather.

It’s worth asking now if officials and researchers had completed all the 33 studies before the government decided to bring African cheetahs to Kuno national park. The answer is probably ‘no’ if only because all officials were still debating whether Kuno was suitable for the lions in 2016, some 23 years later. These studies take time.

Bringing the African cheetahs to India was always a dubious idea. The idea doesn’t make sense in conservation science. It throws up the question of why governments were decisive about bringing African cheetahs but were so reluctant to act on Asiatic lions already in the country. Then it raises a series of technical questions, whose oversight makes a mockery of the officials’ claim to be concerned for the animals, and the law.

Finally, it demonstrates the willingness of the state to do all this instead of investing money and scientific knowledge to save local species and spaces that are already critically endangered.

This article was also published in The Wire as The Other Problems With Bringing African Cheetahs to India on September 23, 2022

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About the Author

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Manoj Misra, a former member of the Indian Forest Service (IFS), and Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (Living Yamuna Campaign) a civil society consortium. Member of Water Conflicts Forum and the India Rivers Forum, Organising Committee.