Forget Samarkand, the story of foreign relations from India that has attracted the most attention lately is about animals. Cheetahs, to be precise: Eight of the big cats recently arrived in the Indian subcontinent from Africa to reintroduce the species to the region.
Conservationists and governments all hope that reintroduction will help revitalize local biodiversity and, consequently, the local economy. The move comes after many years of excitement to try to bring back to central India the big cats, which were hunted to extinction decades ago. The last confirmed sighting of an Indian cheetah was in 1952 – when a local prince hunted down and killed three of them.
It wasn’t an easy task. Earlier there were plans to import cheetahs from Iran, where the last Asiatic cheetahs live. However, those moves were thwarted when the experts involved – researchers from the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation – were jailed for espionage in 2016. Now Asiatic cheetahs are expected to go extinct in Iran.
Animal nationalism is a real problem when nation-states use their animal populations as a tool of resistance, to enforce borders, or as national emblems.
Hailing from Namibia and currently at Gwalior in central India, the African cheetahs are a different subspecies than the Asian ones, so success doesn’t come naturally, although hopes are high. In any case, the mere fact that the airlift happened is cause for celebration.
Animal nationalism is a real problem when nation-states use their animal populations as a tool of resistance, to enforce borders, or as national emblems. But animals truly are limitless – so associating an animal with a national identity can sometimes be an adventurous exercise.
It’s not the first time conservationists have attempted to reintroduce a species to India, but hopefully more successfully than previous attempts. Animal nationalism usually transcends borders, but in the case of the Asiatic lion, domestic tensions reared their shaggy heads.
The only Asiatic lions in India can be found at Gir in Gujarat. Authorities in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh wanted a number of lions to be brought into their game reserves primarily for the health of the lion population, understanding that having them in two locations would be better than one, especially given the low levels numbers (only about 600 left). But the Gujarat government refused, saying the lions were the “pride of Gujarat” and would not leave the state.
If tigers cross the border, which country will be credited with the number of employees?
Elsewhere, big cats are pictured in the Himalayan regions of India and Nepal. A concerted effort has been made to revive the tiger population over the past 12 years, with major global projects such as the International Tiger Project. As part of this, Nepal committed in 2010 to doubling its tiger population. And the good news is that on World Tiger Day on July 29 this year, the country announced that it has not only achieved this, but has tripled its tiger population thanks to efforts to protect habitats and end poaching. The announcement came during the Chinese zodiac year of the Tiger, so it was a special win for the country.
But the pursuit of the tiger population had admittedly caused headaches. Both the governments of Nepal and India have allocated significant resources to increase the number of big cats – so if tigers cross the border, which country is credited with the number of employees? It might not be cricket, but it’s apparently quite competitive. Nepal understandably doesn’t want Delhi to brag about its hard work in animal husbandry.
To its credit, Nepal has recognized India’s contribution to achieving the goal. Part of the solution was to set up parks that stretched across Nepal and India to form wildlife zones for the animals.
The same idea is now called again. They are called Peace Parks because they transcend borders. One is in the works for Nepal, Bhutan and India with a MoU drafted in 2019 to consider establishing one. If it goes ahead – and of course there has been no sign of that since then – it would include species-rich landscapes in adjacent areas of the three countries and be an extension of the existing Manas Park in Assam. Authorities say it would allow elephants to roam freely and “maintain the natural connectivity of wildlife species, undisturbed by political borders”.
Cross-border relations undisturbed by political borders? Well that’s a goal.