Cheetah project Dr MK Ranjitsinh interview

Cheetahs survived in India until the 1950s; Since then, the climate and habitat diversity haven’t changed drastically, so the big cats will do well here, argues wildlife conservationist MK Ranjitsinh

Ranjitsinh Kuno cheetah
Conservationist MK Ranjitsinh

How India celebrates government ambition reintroduction of cheetahs Conservationists have warned that the project is unlikely to succeed as India lacks the habitat or prey for wild, free-roaming African cheetahs. They also think it would have been better to prioritize the conservation of other threatened species.

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In an exclusive interview with The Bund, wildlife conservationist MK Ranjitsinh, who was instrumental in bringing the Namibian cheetah to India, helped debunk the popular myth surrounding India’s chances of success in the cheetah resettlement program. He also spoke about what this means for global conservation efforts.

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The leading conservationist went on to reiterate that this is only the first step and that India still has a long way to go before truly assessing the success of the project. Edited excerpts:

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Conservationists have said India’s cheetah program will not succeed due to inadequate habitat and prey base. What are you reading about it?

Cheetah in Kuno Ranjitsinh
The Wildlife Institute of India has given the green light to a project to bring cheetahs from Africa to Kuno National Park. Image: Twitter/ANI

In terms of habitat, cheetahs survived in India until the 1950s. Climate and habitat diversity have not changed drastically. Habitat suitability and prey availability have been certified by the top cheetah experts in Africa and Namibia. The Wildlife Institute of India has also given the green light to the project. The questions of loot base and suitability of the habit are raised by people with very little knowledge on the subject.

Do you think India will achieve its stated goal of grassland conservation?

It’s not just about grassland protection. It is the grassland-forest mosaics that are among the most productive ecosystems. The flat grassland ecosystem has been reduced and occupied by the Indian bustard. The cheetah needs the grassland forest mosaics to thrive. The South African model is a case in point.

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What was behind the selection of Kuno as a location?

It involved numerous surveys, and then the Wildlife Institute of India gave its nod. After surveys across India, Kuno National Park proved to be the ideal location. The reports were also presented in international forums, giving the survey more credibility.

The Supreme Court expressed concern about the resettlement project in 2013, but gave its nod in 2020 on an experimental basis…

The Supreme Court was not informed of the correct report. Findings on the resettlement attempt were not presented in full. In 2020, the SC appointed a committee to look into this. I was the chairman of the committee and then we presented the right reports in court. Therefore, it took a little longer for the project to bear fruit. The reports mentioned that the Wildlife Board and IUCN guidelines were followed in preparing the draft resettlement papers.

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India has specific goals such as reclaiming the cheetah’s functional role as the largest predator, global conservation efforts, and promoting indigenous ecological initiatives. How far will this drive make that possible?

It will give a huge boost to India’s conservation efforts, which have been somewhat curtailed. India has a real penchant for symbolism. The Tiger Project was one such project that India managed successfully. We used the tiger as a mascot to save tiger habitats. So in terms of preservation, it’s a good place to start. Cheetahs can be used as a flagship species to save their habitat and in turn reverse ecological imbalances.

Wildlife biologist and conservation scientist Ravi Chellam’s argument that the cheetah relocation program is intended to mask the problems faced by Asiatic lions has made some headlines. What do you think about it?

Why do we need to separate the two translocations of lions from Gir and cheetahs from Africa? Can’t they coexist? It should be viewed in terms of the need of the hour and not just as an exercise.

Also read: Cheetahs: Their Connection to the Mughals and How They Got Extinct in India