THE LITHE and graceful cheetah is poised to sprint once again in India nearly half a century after it became extinct.
The fastest mammal on Earth and the only one whose name has been derived from Sanskrit was last seen in central India in the 1960s.
Centuries earlier, cheetahs abounded across India with numerous folk and hunting tales woven around their speed, ferocity and cunning. But a proposal cleared this week by India’s federal environment ministry aims to rectify this inadequacy over the next three or four years.
Under the planned $6 million rehabilitation scheme, environment minister Jairam Ramesh aims to induct 18 cheetahs acquired from Iran, Namibia and South Africa into three specified sites in adjoining Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan provinces in central and western India.
Functioning under the joint expertise of the Wildlife Trust of India and the Wildlife Institute of India, these sanctuaries would be readied by stocking them with sufficient prey for the cheetahs.
“The way tigers restore the forest ecosystem, snow leopards the mountain ecosystem and the Gangetic dolphin restores waters in the rivers, the cheetah will eventually restore India’s grasslands,” said Mr Ramesh.
Some of these areas where this extinct mammal would be established could emerge as the only places where the tiger, lion and cheetah survive together, the minister added.
The return of the cheetah also promises to resurrect grassland and open spaces in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh encroached upon over decades by humans. Experts estimate that about 100 communities, involving tens of thousands of people, would need to be relocated to make way for the cheetah.
Wildlife experts, however, remain cautious as repopulating regions with “delicate” animals like the cheetah is demanding and arduous. “It is very complicated because the cheetah is a very fragile, precious predator. You have to look after it very well. It has to have lot of grasslands and prey species,” said Valmik Thapar, India’s foremost tiger expert and environmentalist.
Meanwhile, the Rajasthan government has announced the establishment of a sloth bear sanctuary in the province, spread across 4468sq km.
The provincial forest department has decided to rehabilitate hundreds of sloth bears, the majority of them rescued over the past decade by animal rights activists.
Some 600 of these bears dragooned into performing on highways across several north Indian cities in a custom dating back to Mughal times were liberated from their cruel masters who treated them viciously.
They forced these bears to put on impressive performances by threading a rope roughly through their snouts and a mere tug on it was sufficiently painful to force the animal on to its hind legs, giving the impression of dancing.
As a consequence the bears were in constant agony, their mouths raw and bleeding and their toothless gums foaming. Their wounds were never allowed to heal and scores of them danced for foreign tourists along highways in northern India.