At the dawn of the twentieth century, cheetahs existed on the Indian subcontinent, though admittedly few in numbers. The last credible sighting of these swift cats in India was in the winter of 1967-68. In Pakistan, the Animal has reportedly been sighted up to 1997 and possibly even later, as stray individual cheetahs may have crossed over from Iran.
When this book was published in 1995, I had dared to hop that it would generate some interest within the government to reintroduce the cheetah in India. After all, the animal was reported sporadically on the subcontinent up to the time of the book's publication and beyond. Its memory, I had hoped, was still fresh enough for the powers that be, to see it back in its former habitat. As it happens, it turned out that my hope had been naive. The trail of the animal has indeed gone cold, barring the usual chatter within non- governmental circles about its reintroduction, and of all things, an attempt to clone a cheetah from Iran in India by a scientific institution funded by the government.
It has been estimated that there were probably 25,000 tigers left at the beginning of the twentieth century 1 and right up to 1947, the year of India's independence, they were reported in substantial numbers. For example, 1074 tigers were officially shot in the United Provinces alone between 1929-28.2 Massive deforestation, a slackening of administrative efficiency with the disappearance of the Imperial power and the princely states, the easy availability of fireman licenses, new roads, and four-wheel drive vehicles spelt doom for wild animals. By the time the government of India woke up to the disaster, only 1827 tigers could be accounted for in 1972, which led to the launching of Project Tiger. 3
The tiger's preferred habitat is thick jungle, just the sort of natural environment that would be destroyed or degraded last by human action. The depleted numbers of tigers are an indication of the state of the projected areas of the country. The great grasslands disappeared earlier. With them went the lion, which became extinct in India by the 1890s, except for the relict population in the Saurashtra peninsula where it still survives precariously. The cheetah soon followed; it was totally wiped out in the succeeding eighty years.
However, the government initiative of project tiger brought some respite for the tiger. In spite of this, India is facing a second wildlife crisis for sometime now. The tiger and its habitat are under renewed threat for numerous reasons which have been well documented by several others. Suffice it for our purpose to say that the state has failed to adequately protect its last remaining forests and their fauna. The grasslands do not have any hope, under these circumstances, for survival in large areas, or for regeneration through sound management by the government. There is a lack of political will. With its habitat gone, there is no hope for the cheetah's reintroduction in our midst in a meaningful manner, that is, by recreating a healthy thriving population in the wild.
The lion is Gujarat and the great one-horned rhinoceros in Assam survive because of willing administrations backed by local pride in these animals. The cheetah, on the other hand, has no champions. It is not even recognized by most people who confuse it with the leopard. Visions of a cheetah family resting in a glade or a cheetah running down a black buck in a grassland, are the stuff of romantic fiction.
India today is a resurgent, vibrant nation. Our scientists want to be at the forefront of technological development and some of them want to learn and use the techniques for cloning, which is not surprising. The Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology at Hyderabad reportedly wanted to obtain a pair of cheetahs from Iran for the experiments; or failing which they wanted to collect fertilized eggs from a female there, in order to implant them into surrogate leopard females here. It appears India approached the Iranian President Mahammad khatami during his visit to the center in 2003.4 However, nothing came of it as the Iranians did not agree to part with any cheetahs from the miniscule numbers that survive there, and in any case, the only know cheetahs from Iran in captivity, a female, died at Pardisan Park, Tehran on 23 December 2004.5
It is not necessary to use a specimen of a critically endangered species of animal to learn or perfect the process of cloning. An Indian 'Dolly' would have served the purpose just as well. If the intention was to regenerate this lost species in India, the priority surely would have been to identify one or more degraded grasslands, allow them to recover, ensure proper prey base and so on, so that such habitats could sustain a healthy wild population. Without such a plan in place, a successfully cloned cheetah would have languished in one of our zoos where the record of keeping them leaves much to be desired.
The only hope for the survival of the cheetahs in Asia is in Iran. The government there is taking steps to project the cheetahs there, informed me that less than 60 animals survive, mostly on Iran's arid central plateau. But there is still hope. Towards the end of 2005, a camera trap photographed a female with four cubs aged six months, in the Dar-e Anjir Wildlife Refuge.6 The fact that the cubs survived, arguably the most difficult period of their life, indicates that there is sufficient cover and prey for them to make their last stand. Hopefully, they will succeed.
Back of the Book
This book presents a pictorial history of the cheetah in India from the pre-historic period to the present. It provides a comprehensive account of the animal's interaction with man through the ages, reconstructing its life in captivity and its use by Indian royalty as an aid to hunting. Divyabhanusingh examines the Indian cheetah's decline in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, charting its path to extinction and analyzing the causes of its disappearance, using evidence of declining numbers in Iran, and its existence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In a new preface to this edition, he laments the lack of progress on the part of the government in successfully reintroducing the cheetah from Iran, citing examples of dwindling forest reserves, and declining numbers of tigers and lions in the wild in India.
This superb book with its many illustrations, is an indispensable reference work that aims to renew interest in the cheetah's reintroduction in India.
Divyabhanusingh, former Vice President of the Bombay Natural History Society, is a member of the Cat Specialist Group, Species Survival Commission of World Conservation Union, and trustee of World Wide Fund for Nature. He is an authority on the cheetah in India and the Asiatic lion.
. The Indian cheetah, the little known and enigmatic species of the Indian plains has found a remarkably talented chronicler of its history'
. An elegiac celebration and memorial, as well as a social history, gathering together evidence of contancts and relationship between man and animal
ultimately fatal to the latter.
an attractive and moving book.'
takes you through glimpses of Mughal India, British India and post- Independence India
This book is essential reading for all those interested in the natural history of the subcontinent. Meticulously researched
a remarkable eulogy to the cheetah in India.'
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