The Indian Cheetah: Hunter, Hunted, Extinct

Cheetah, wild, walking, zoo
Image: Riyaz Shaik/ 7MB
The last Indian cheetah was shot in 1947. With plans to import or clone the Indian cheetah in tatters, is the fast cat extinct?

Deep within a forest, a Rajput named Anup Singh Badgujar was hunting deer. He saw a flash of movement in the bushes and fired – only to realize he had shot one of emperor Akbar’s hunting cheetahs, identified by the gold brace on its neck. He feared for his life and tried to bury the creature, but was discovered – and dragged to the emperor in chains.

Akbar, instead of killing him, praised him for his marksmanship, and employed him in his service. Anup had shot and killed the fastest mammal in the world – and only one out of a total of Akbar’s cheetahs said to be in the thousands.

Cheetahs were tamed by the Mughals, who used them in their hunts. One would imagine that their patronage could have helped the species thrive – but cheetahs don’t breed well in captivity, as Akbar’s son noted. They need space in order to thrive, find privacy and stretch their legs. Over the years, their numbers dwindled.

In 1947, just after India’s independence, Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo shot and killed the last three wild cheetahs in the country. He is also reputed to have killed over a thousand tigers in his lifetime. His secretary snapped a pic, and sent it to the Bombay Natural History Society’s Journal, intending them to record his act. They responded, nauseated by it, stating that “its publication here is intended in the nature of an impeachment.”

With his act, cheetahs had become extinct in India.

Dwindling numbers across the world

Maharajah, Ramanuj, Last, cheetah, hunted
Image: Pvt. Secretary to Maharajah Ramanuj/ Public Domain

A recent study found that less than 7100 cheetahs remain today, with the fast cat taking up only nine percent of the area it used to. The world’s fastest mammal is now an endangered one. Of these, the Asiatic cheetah is the most vulnerable, with fewer than 50 remaining in Iran, and only two females remaining in the wild there.

As the world reels from the news, India can only watch on in sadness. The name ‘cheetah’ itself hails from the Sanskrit ‘Chitraka’, and having cheetahs made India one of few countries to have all of the big cats as native species – the Asiatic lion, Asiatic cheetah, Bengal tiger, Indian leopard and black panther.

It’s the only large mammal to have been declared extinct in the country. You can still find a cheetah in a zoo – but they’ll likely have been imported, or gifted. They didn’t die out only because of hunting, as cheetahs were not a “worthy trophy” in the days of the Raj. They perished due to a lack of food, chronic inbreeding, conflicts with humans, and fewer and fewer spaces to make a habitat in.

Bringing the cheetah back

In 2003, India announced plans to reintroduce the Asiatic cheetah to the subcontinent by cloning them.

The idea was to take a cheetah’s living cell, extract the nucleus from it and place it within the womb of an Asiatic leopard. They got to work, collecting samples from across the country. All that was missing was a live cell from a living Asiatic Cheetah – and Iran was the only country to still have a pocket surviving.

This began India’s brief stint with cheetah diplomacy. With few cheetahs remaining, Iran was naturally reluctant to send its animals abroad. Talks were slow, with Iran refusing to part with their precious cats even for their cells. Talks ultimately stalled, and the subcontinent’s last shot at cloning back the Asian cheetah disappeared.

Speaking to the Madras Courier, Dr. V.B. Mathur, director of the Wildlife Institute of India (which spearheaded the project), confirmed the death of the programme:

In the overall scheme of things today, I’m sorry to say cheetah is not a priority issue, as we are struggling with other forms of wildlife.

Importing the wild

Cheetah, wild,
Image: Riyaz Shaik/ 7MB

With the Make in India option crossed out, the import route was taken. There was a precedent for this – when domestic cheetah numbers were low in the early twentieth century, hunters imported them from Africa to hunt game with.

Fast forward a century, and African cheetahs became vogue again. Following some advice (and controversy) from wildlife experts, it was then decided than Namibian cheetahs could make the grade.

The import question drew its own debate. Conservationists like Stephen J. O’Brien argued that the Asian cheetah only diverged from the African one a relatively short 5000 years ago. This triggered debates about the genetic roots of the Asiatic cheetah – was it related to the African one at all, and if not, would it count as an alien import?

Historians like Romila Thapar argued that lions and cheetahs were already imports – coming to India around the time of Alexander the Great.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court quashed the plan, agreeing with the emerging consensus that the Asiatic and African cheetah diverged genetically more than 30,000 years ago. It would have also broken International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) rules for introducing alien species.

Worldwide efforts

In 2015, the Asiatic cheetah saw a brief return to life. Argentina had been developing a reputation in cloning meat. They decided to take the science a step further – and cloned an Asiatic cheetah embryo from frozen skin cells. That was as far as they were allowed to go, as the ethical standards they follow under the Latin American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, prevented them from going further.

The state of the cheetah in general is bleak. Its habitat is wide-ranging, as they travel more than a thousand kilometres each year in search of prey. This drastically increases the area that needs to come under conservation – and the scale of human cooperation needed to avoid people-animal conflicts in developing nations.

The land available for wildlife has dramatically decreased. By 2020, two-thirds of all wildlife on earth are expected to be lost. It might only be a couple of generations more before cheetahs are extinct altogether.

The need of the hour is the place the cheetah on the IUCN’s Red List of endangered species – prompting global efforts to save the species. Without concentrated international efforts, we are at a stage where the animals we know from our schoolbooks, Tinkle magazines and cartoons will no longer exist to be seen or heard.

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