The Indian cheetah, from abundance to extinction : The Tribune India

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Lieutenant General Baljit Singh (retired)


Wildlife Specialist

Seventy-five years after the subcontinent’s Indian cheetah went extinct, a long-running project to revive the species is set to begin August 15 with the induction of a batch of eight cheetahs from Namibia. The question that demands an answer is how and why the cheetah was extirpated for no reason in the first place.

The tragic chronicle of the journey of this magnificent creature, from abundance to extinction, evokes five personalities of yesteryear: the Mughal Emperor Akbar, the Raja of Kariwa in Madhya Pradesh, two gentlemen officers of the Indian army and an American who, in the 1960s, had pushed India towards the revival of the tiger.

But first, it must be said that once upon a time, only the Indian landmass was endowed with all the “four big cats”: the lion, the tiger, the leopard and the cheetah! Africa didn’t have the tiger and the Americas only had the lion and leopard look-alike in their puma/cougar and the jaguar.

There were a host of trends that nearly wiped out all of our four big cats, the most significant being the fallacious axiom that touted hunting as the ‘sport of kings’ and the ‘king of sports’, as well as the advent of the high speed bolt action rifles. Fortuitously, when in 1903 the Nawab of Junagadh invited Lord Curzon to shoot a lion as a ‘hunting trophy’, the viceroy not only declined the invitation but encouraged him and also helped him impose a total ban on shooting the lion because their population was declining. only 18 years old!

The tiger, too, was teetering on the brink of extinction in the 1960s. But, fortunately, Guy Mountford successfully pledged himself to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to initiate and lead Project Tiger.

Fortunately, the leopard, the most cunning and able to live in all habitats, resisted in its wild refuge as well as the enhanced safety net created by the legislative mandates of Project Tiger.

The Indian cheetah, which lived in the open plains, devoid even of forest cover and, therefore, much easier to spot and hunt, had come to Emperor Akbar’s attention, not as a “hunting trophy”. but rather as a prized hunting tool. . It is believed that Akbar had 1,000 hunting cheetahs in his stables, adequately trained and domesticated to be leashed, much like companion dogs. Presumably all were captured in the desert, so their population in India must then have been a few lakhs, at least. As one jumped to clear a 20-foot-wide ravine in a chase to stalk a black deer on the opposite bank, the Emperor had a special gold-leaf necklace studded with diamonds around his slender neck. that cheetah!

Imagine that hundreds of thousands of these fastest animals on earth moved freely from south of the Ganges, through western and central India, to Coimbatore.

Then, during a tragic November sunset in 1947, the Raja of Kariwa – a small principality north of Bastar in Madhya Pradesh – spotted three pairs of eyes shining in the beam of his car’s headlights. In less than a minute, the last three surviving Indian cheetahs were sent into oblivion to join the ranks of the dodo.

Prime Minister Nehru quickly ordered the creation of the National Wildlife Board, charged with preserving wildlife and associated habitats and preventing further extinctions.

A pompous letter from Raja’s secretary describing the horrific act is on file at the Bombay Natural History Society. Salim Ali, the naturalist, commented on the incident: “Whoever…is so grossly ignorant of the status of the cheetah…so blind that he destroys a rare animal when he is phenomenally lucky to come across no one but three together – probably the very last remnants of a dying race – is too depressing to contemplate.

We now come to the two Cheetah devotees from the ranks of the army. Madras Presidency Army Surgeon Major TC Jerdon led the platoon, from 1835. Over the next three decades Jerdon was recognized by the Royal Zoological Society, London, as the “father” of Indian ornithology and mammals and its observations on an orphaned cheetah cubs are typically heartwarming: “I had one…only a few days old…raised at my home in Saugor…clad in long greenish tawny colored hair without spots…I raised the youngster…with Greyhound puppies and they soon became great friends…he grew very attached to me…Recognizing his name Billy…would follow me on horseback like a dog…”

Major Arthur Wellesley of the Bengal Presidency, the future Duke of Wellington, had cut his teeth as a combat soldier leading the final assault on Tipu Sultan. When Tipu fell in the Battle of Srirangapatnam, the victorious British collected his enormous wealth and shipped it to Britain. But Wellesley, an avid hunter, took five of Tipu’s best hunting cheetahs as personal spoils of war.

Wellesley was the first to document the precise technique employed by the cheetah to bring down its prey “by means of its unsheathed dew claws permanently attached to its victim’s hindquarters”. The dew claws on the front legs are a genetic appendage bestowed on the only cheetah in the “Big Four”.

Now the idea of ​​reintroducing the cheetah using the African strain brings us to American naturalist George Schaller, arguably the greatest living wildlife biologist. Schaller, when approached with the proposal in the 1980s, had remarked, “Please show me the habitat and prey base of the cheetah anywhere in India and I will give my life to this project without any accountability to the Indian government” or words to that effect.

Unfortunately, extinction is forever. No matter how successful the Indian Institute of Molecular Biology in Hyderabad is, it cannot bring back the Indian cheetah strain. Period.

The cheetah in India is a beautiful memory. Let us cherish it as such and let the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary be used for the exclusive purpose set up in the 1990s: as a second home for the Asiatic lion beleaguered at Gir.

The need of the hour is to bend our hearts, souls, legislation and science to preserve the last few of the three big cats and all other animals of India surviving today with their habitats as a composite whole . There is no more time to party.

Is anyone listening?

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