For the last few years, 30th November has been celebrated by a select few communities all over the world as Remembrance Day. On this day, species that have become extinct are remembered and talked about. Along with this, awareness is spread among the younger population about the dangers that animals and plants face in the wild today. Taking on this unique and admirable tradition, I’d like to remember the Asiatic Cheetah. It is not yet extinct in the world; however, it is certainly extinct in India (a minor tweak to the tradition).
The Asiatic Cheetah (or simply cheetah, in my childhood) used to be my favorite wild animal when I was a kid. I would scrounge wildlife books hoping to find a few photos of this animal. There was a chapter in my English language 2nd grade text book, where the cheetah was mentioned. Even that small mention made me read that chapter over and over again.
My fascination for this animal was purely because it is the fastest land animal in the world. It can hit speeds over 100 km/h! It looks very similar to a leopard, but is smaller and vastly differs in its habitat. While the leopards live in dense vegetation and on trees, cheetahs thrive in open spaces. The Asiatic cheetah is a subspecies of the African cheetah. Today, it lives only in the Iranian Kavir desert. About 70 individuals are known to exist in the wild. Most of them current living population, however, are captive in zoos.
Once the “Indian” Cheetah….
Asiatic cheetah used to be called the Indian cheetah. Historically, it used to live across the breadth of the country, from Rajasthan, through the uppermost regions of the Deccan Traps to West Bengal. Grasslands and prey, which include antelopes, rodents and deer, were abundant and the cheetah population flourished. In fact, cheetahs are considered to be a keystone species in Indian grasslands.
However, due to its hunting abilities and the sheer fascination of being the fastest land animal, cheetahs were relentlessly sought after throughout the middle ages. They were either kept captive and used for hunting other animals, or it was a matter of pride for hunters to kill the “fastest animal on land”. The hunting only increased with the arrival of the British. The situation never improved, and the last cheetah to be spotted in India was in 1951. Since then, it has lost the “Indian” tag. Its only surviving population is in Iran; they are a critically endangered subspecies.
Their survival in Iran hasn’t been that great either. Road accidents have accounted for 40% of the deaths over the last two decades. Further, their prey and habitat size has been shrinking steadily. Their prey, which primarily includes the gazelle (or chinkara) and antelope, are grazers. They need to actively compete with other grazing herds that are raised for meat. Their habitats are also being fragmented by road and railroad construction projects.
This is such a majestic animal; it is a shame that we are restricting it to narrow “protected” areas….
Can it be brought back to India?
The Government of India introduced the Project Cheetah in 2009, in an attempt to reintroduce cheetahs in India and restore grasslands of the region, which are heavily degraded. It also adds an edge to Indian wildlife tourism; if this had succeeded, India would be the only country to host 6 of the 8 big cats of the world.
However, concerns were raised as to the viability of African cheetahs in India. After all, the Asiatic subspecies separated from its African brethren close to 67,000 years ago. African cheetahs are also morphologically different from the Asiatic variety. They are adapted to different diets.
The Supreme court of India rejected the first proposal of Project Cheetah, citing the African subspecies as an “alien species” and unlikely to survive in India. Efforts continue in this regard, however.
This post has actually given me an opportunity to read up on this animal seriously for the first time. That’s the whole point of Remembrance Day. Let’s spread this movement, shall we? If you are reading this, I’d really love it if you could post about any animal that has gone extinct that you find fascinating. In fact, even a picture will do.
Let’s recognize the harm we are doing to wildlife, and spread the word. Someone, somewhere, will be touched by it and will resolve to fight poaching and stand for wildlife protection.