Ravi Chellam: ‘The translocation of lions to Kuno was ordered by the Supreme Court’
‘Cheetahs are for tourism, not conservation’
Civil Society News, New Delhi
The Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh was meant to receive the growing number of Asiatic lions from Gir in Gujarat. The plan was to have a second population of the Asiatic lion. But, with African cheetahs now being flown in, it appears that the transfer of lions from Gir will be deferred for several years till the cheetahs settle down.
The decision to bring in African cheetahs has been mired in controversy. Keeping them in fenced enclosures in Kuno will be costly and difficult. The claim that they will bring back grasslands and boost the endangered Great Indian Bustard is being questioned.
We spoke to Ravi Chellam, one of India’s leading experts on wildlife, on the cheetah project and its implications:
What is your opinion of this plan to introduce African cheetahs to India? What do you make of it?
I have variously called it a vanity project and a glorified safari park. Why the rush? I mean, the monsoon is not the right time to be moving large mammals through our national parks.
The underfoot conditions are not great. Heavy vehicles churn up the earth at this time. These are not your national highways through which you need to move animals. Most national parks in north India are closed to tourists during the monsoon months.
While they try to make it sound scientific and give it a veneer of conservation respectability, I go by the facts. We have the National Wildlife Action Plan. This is supposed to be the guiding document for all conservation action. It is a 15-year plan so there will naturally be some exceptions. The most recent plan was written for the period 2017 to 2031. It does not mention a ‘c’ of cheetahs. It is not a national priority, assuming that the plan does set national priorities. I see this disconnect.
So how have cheetahs suddenly become a national priority?
I can share an article in The Signal. It basically says this is driven by the need to leave a legacy. At another level, this is the 75th year of our independence and it is going to get a lot of media attention. But there are insidious implications. It effectively, at the very minimum, delays the translocation of (Asiatic) lions from Gujarat to Kuno which was ordered by the Supreme Court in April 2013.
I first encountered this in court when I was present as an expert adviser in 2012. The counsel for Gujarat stood up and said, We hear the Government of India is going to introduce cheetahs from Africa. Ecology tells us lions are more powerful than cheetahs. Let the cheetahs come and settle down. Once they are settled, we can begin the discussion on translocation of lions from Gujarat. The court saw through that. In extremely clear terms, the judgment quashed the order of the Government of India to introduce African cheetahs in Kuno.
In 2013 it was a complete no to introduce African cheetahs to Kuno. In 2016 the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) filed an appeal or a review petition on the plea that while the court’s order focused on Kuno it was being interpreted as a blanket ban on getting cheetahs into India. It sought permission to survey additional sites. Eventually the court passed an order on January 28, 2020, and we all know what is happening since then.
The 2013 order had very clearly said that translocation of Asiatic lions to Kuno has to take priority over introduction of African cheetahs. While hearing the NTCA petition the court observed that the NTCA had sought permission to survey additional sites and permitted these surveys. The court sought reports every four months and also directed that the matter should be listed after four months, that is, in late May 2020. After January 28, 2020, this matter has not been listed or heard. I have information suggesting some reports were submitted. But the key thing is that they surveyed six sites, I think, in 12 days out of which Kuno took four days. So, the other five sites got eight days in total. To me, it’s like a fait accompli. It looks like it was already decided it’s going to be Kuno.
If the NTCA was to be consistent with its review petition, which sought permission to survey other sites, the court does not seem to be keeping track of this. And it is also on record saying it will not affect the translocation of lions. Now the Action Plan says after the cheetahs have settled, we can bring the lions. And as per the Action Plan the most optimistic time frame is 15 years for the cheetahs to settle down.
In 2012, this was the plea the Gujarat government brought which was struck down by the Supreme Court and look at where we are 10 years down the line.
People ask me questions about ecology and conservation. But to me, fundamentally, this is a rule of law issue.
But Indira Gandhi also wanted to bring cheetahs from Iran.
Look, if you really think you can make it work, then make it work. But why Kuno? Why subvert a standing order of the Supreme Court? Why continue to stall lion translocation? Why divert attention from much more urgent conservation issues? Why waste scarce conservation resources? The South Africans are advocating a completely different model of conservation. They are advocating the fencing of sites where cheetahs are to be introduced to improve the chances of success. There is a lobby saying that there should be no wildlife outside Protected Areas.
That means literally doing away with many endangered species including tigers, lions and elephants from areas outside our Protected Areas — 30 to 40 percent of the populations of these species at least use if not being resident in these areas. Such an approach will sever genetic connectivity and greatly increase the risk of isolation and the resultant inbreeding.
The minute an area is fenced, it becomes even smaller. Then there is no movement and no genetic connectivity. It’s extremely expensive and, in India, try fencing anything to keep people out. Barriers have failed miserably. We are willing to spend several crores of rupees for one kilometre of fencing. Imagine if we had invested that in the welfare of the local community.
Cheetahs are for tourism. Conservation is a smokescreen. No cheetah is going to save the grasslands of India. Great Indian Bustards are critically endangered. The cheetah is not going to the habitat of the bustard. How is it going to save the bustard? India has a very diverse set of grasslands spread right across the country.
After introducing 50 cheetahs we will end up with 21 cheetahs after 15 years, according to the official best-case scenario. And with 21 cheetahs will we be able to save grasslands all over India? Where is the science or logic in this? Thirdly, why are we again messing with lion translocation?
Are you saying the Kuno National Park is not suitable for the cheetahs?
No, I never said that. For habitat assessment you need four parameters assessed: habitat structure, area available, prey availability, level of protection or level of risk.
I don’t think there is a habitat structure problem. I think there is a problem with the prey not just in terms of density. These are African cheetahs and they are not used to deer. I don’t know how easily they will adapt to the additional complication of a fairly high density of the leopard population in Kuno. They are focusing on a national park that is only 748 sq. km. It is set in a larger matrix of forest that does not have an adequate prey base. Cheetahs, by their normal ecology, exist in low densities. A tiger or a lion can exist in a density of some five to 10 animals per 100 sq. km. Cheetahs normally exist in one to two per 100 sq. km.
Cheetahs need much larger areas to survive, it could be up to 10 times the area needed by other large cats. Where are such areas available in India today? It is impossible to find suitable habitat extending into thousands of sq. km. That’s the prevailing reality.
To me the question is not of habitat structure but of area, prey, protection from things like dogs, they can get disease and get into conflict. If you are going to keep them in 750 sq. km, how are they going to play this larger role of being an apex predator? If the full complement of large carnivores is present, the cheetah is not the top predator. It is way down the totem pole — after the lion, the tiger and the leopard. That’s ecology, not a personal opinion.
But won’t this focus on cheetahs improve our national parks?
How many national parks are the cheetahs going to be in? Do we lack in charismatic animals that we need an African animal to raise the conservation profile of our wildlife and their habitats? What prevents us from focusing on our national parks today? Look at the money we are going to be spending and will have to continue to spend. These animals will have to be treated like they are constantly in an ICU, needing constant and intense attention.
You are saying conceptually it makes no sense.
Yes. We are not focusing on, say, the Great Indian Bustard. We all know its status. Do we need a cheetah to focus on it? Grasslands are even today categorized as wastelands in India. If we want to save grasslands, first we should change the category. We will then show a more positive attitude towards it.
Nature can take care of itself if left alone. The problem is, we say grasslands are useless and grow trees and place all our massive solar projects on them. Those are the problems we need to address.
The Supreme Court passed an order in April 2021 which said that a significant cause of the mortality of the Great Indian Bustard was that they are colliding with overhead power lines and to please bury the power lines in one or two key areas for the bustard. Till April 2022 no action was taken. The court asked for a report. The government then said, It’s expensive, we don’t have the money. Where did the money come for introducing African cheetahs?
You say the cheetah will save the Great Indian Bustard which is getting killed by overhead power lines. You have money to bring cheetahs, but not to bury the power lines. So, how is it going to be saved?
What will the cost per cheetah be?
I don’t know if there is an actual financial cost in purchasing the cheetahs. The MoU India has signed with Namibia may have the details of what we have committed to Namibia to get these animals. Namibia wanted us to support them in removing the CITES ban on the ivory trade.
South Africa is on record saying it has not as yet (early August) signed the MoU while (their) conservationists are saying the cheetahs will leave mid-August.
This cuts across political parties. The justification given is that the cheetah is the only large mammal that’s gone extinct since Independence. There is very limited science here, definitely no conservation, and we are also in breach of the law.
Can you tell us about fencing?
In India all kinds of barriers have been tried and most have failed. This is a rather special form of fencing. It is fenced habitat in the heart of the national park. It is not a barrier abutting human settlements and wildlife habitat. This is a small area, 10 sq. km or so, in the heart of the national park.
The other challenge with fencing is water courses. How do you fence a river? I hope they have avoided streams. Fencing is extremely capital intensive. They have done it but now they are facing a peculiar challenge — leopards have come in. Cheetahs will be badly affected by leopards in an enclosed space. They are trying to catch the leopards, but it’s proving to be very challenging.
They don’t want any animal to come in or go out. But that’s like a zoo.
No, that is good practice. Cats have homing behaviour. When you move them artificially, they have an innate ability to go in the general direction from where they were brought.
As per best practices, they are localized in a largish habitat between four to six weeks, not a typical zoo-size cage. You need to manage them carefully so that they don’t get imprinted on people because you want them to maintain fear of people so that they don’t walk up to people and treat them with familiarity.
At the same time, you have to feed them. In Africa they shoot wild prey and the whole carcass is dropped through a hook and pulley system. The animal does not see human beings and connect them with food. In India they are saying they will stock the enclosure with prey. Before the cheetah arrives, they will release deer into the fenced enclosure.
It means the cheetah will have a tremendous advantage. Cats learn quickly that you can run your prey into the fence. The prey is only worried about the predator chasing it. It doesn’t look ahead into the fence. Even if it does, what can it do?
What about people living in villages around the park?
The cheetah is not so much of a problem. They are not known generally to attack people. Livestock is a problem. We are told they have an efficient compensation mechanism.
You are saying this is illegal. What is the state of the policy for wildlife conservation in India?
You have the National Wildlife Action Plan which doesn’t mention the cheetah. It mentions lions and it says the project (for translocation) has to start in 2018 and finish by 2021. We all know what has happened with respect to the lions. The animal which is not mentioned is going to show up in Kuno. The Great Indian Bustard is high priority, so are grasslands which are still categorized as wastelands. This is a reflection of the prevailing policy contradictions.
What is the process of decision-making for wildlife conservation? How do these decisions get made?
I wish I knew. Then there would be some accountability and we could fix responsibility. The Wildlife Institute of India is definitely party to all of this as well as to the translocation of lions. I was part of the institute when recommendations for lion reintroduction were made.
It’s a mystery how we are taking some decisions in wildlife.
It is not a mystery. You have to read between the lines and come to your own conclusions. Clearly, on the cheetah, the Government of India filed a review petition so the NTCA deliberately went for a petition in 2016 for a 2013 order, followed it up for four years till they got the order in 2020 and then implemented it in a manner which was not consistent with their original review petition where they said allow us permission to survey other sites. The two sites mentioned were Nauradehi in Madhya Pradesh and Sathyamangalam in Tamil Nadu.
Wildlife sanctuaries are also degraded and corridors don’t exist…
We have to understand that wildlife corridors cannot be built. Corridors are an artefact of human destruction, in most cases. There were extensive contiguous wildlife habitats but we nibbled away and made it narrow and it then became a corridor. Unless it is extremely undulating or flooded habitat, where wildlife corridors will be narrow strips which are more amenable for animal movement. Otherwise, you are dealing with the contraction of wildlife habitat — taking the shape of a corridor.
Almost no Protected Area is large enough to hold viable populations of large mammals like tigers, elephants and bears in the long term. Some of the finest scientists are in India and they have done this research. You can’t say it happens in America, but it will not happen in India.
Till the 2018 canine distemper virus struck the Gir lions, they said it’s an African problem, it won’t happen to our lions. The tenure for forest officers is short in each posting, on an average three years and may be up to five years. Many officers don’t want complications during their tenure. They rarely think long-term and deal in that manner.
Fencing is expensive and against our normal way of functioning. It will put local communities and a lot of our wildlife at risk because they will be isolated. They will then say we will helicopter animals in and out, because they don’t move anymore. This is an unsuitable model for us.
No other country has 1.5 billion people and all this wonderful wildlife. There is much to celebrate and learn from what we have been doing well rather than merely adopt models from other countries.
Ravi Chellam is CEO, Metastring Foundation & Coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative