India’s Supreme Court has suspended an ambitious project to import cheetahs from Africa to an Indian wildlife sanctuary and revive a species which became extinct in the South Asian country nearly a quarter of a century ago.
A popular target with hunters, the Asiatic cheetah disappeared from the forests of India in the 1950s.The last of the three cheetahs in the country are said to have been hunted down by a former king in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
The government drew up a plan to revive the species by shipping African cheetahs from Namibia and introducing them to a wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. Fifteen cheetahs were to be brought in during the first phase of the project.
But the Supreme Court this week put the $56 million plan on hold, after wildlife experts called it “totally misconceived.”
Court-appointed adviser P.S. Narasimha said the African cheetah is not native to India and completely different from its Asian counterpart. He said introducing the African cheetah here goes against guidelines set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Conservationists also pointed out that the cost of the plan exceeded that of India’s most high-profile wildlife conservation project - saving the tiger.
Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India is among those who raised concerns with the government.
“Since we have so many problems protecting and securing a future for our other big cats and endangered species, we don’t need another very expensive headache,” said Wright. "It is not worth going through this whole thing when we can't even look after what we have in the wild.
The African cheetahs were to be introduced to a sanctuary also earmarked as a new home for the Asiatic Lion. These lions were to be brought from another sanctuary in the western Indian state of Gujarat, where the last remaining population of this species lives. But state authorities have apparently been reluctant to send the animals.
Wright said that should be the priority for India. “It is much more important to secure a second stronghold for our lions, which already exist in the wild in India, and to sacrifice that for another species is very questionable,” he said.
Until the 20th century, the Asiatic cheetah was quite common and roamed from Iran to Afghanistan and India. But now there are believed to be fewer than 100 left in Iran.