The Cheetah, reputedly the fastest animal on the planet, is a beautiful creature. Anyone who has seen one can attest to this. With its smallish, rounded head, short snout, tear-like streaks about its beautiful liquid eyes, long legs, powerful, lissom torso, spotted, tawny coat, and stretched, upward curving tail, it is one of the most elegant of the large felines. Between two and three feet tall at the shoulder and 3.5 to almost 5 ft in length excluding the tail, a Cheetah can chase at up to 100 km an hour, and reach even higher speeds in short, lightening-like sprints.
Relatively easy to tame, the Cheetah, as both hunter and prey, was a favourite of Mughals and the British rulers of India. Akbar is known to have kept a posse of a 1000 hunting Cheetah, while the British are photographed in several Cheetah hunts, often with native Indian princes. Once found from Africa, all across Western Asia and Iran to the Indian sub-continent, over-hunting and destruction of their natural habitat in India led to the Cheetah’s extinction in the subcontinent.
Today, there are less than 7000 Cheetahs left in the world, concentrated mostly in the African savannas. The last of India’s Cheetahs was hunted out of existence in the small princely state of Koriya in the erstwhile Central Provinces & Berar (now Chhatisgarh).
There is a memorable tinted photo of the last Maharaja, Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo, with his kill of three Cheetahs at his feet. The year was 1947, the year India became independent. It is as if both the hunter and the hunted were doomed to extinction.
It is poetic justice, therefore, that in the 75th anniversary celebrations of India’s independence, a special cargo flight, its nose painted to resemble a Cheetah, carried eight of these priceless beasts to India from Namibia.
The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, himself released the relocated Cheetahs in their new home, the Kuno National Park (KNP), Madhya Pradesh. What made the occasion even more memorable is that the it was Modi’s birthday, a considerable portion of which he spent with these lithesome predators.
Turning photographer, Modi released pictures of the Cheetahs in their new home shot with his SLR Nikon. The beasts looked somewhat bewildered in their new environment, but it is hoped that they will not only soon feel at home, but also hunt and reproduce.
The Cheetahs will live in a special enclosure in this 314 sq. km national park, which also has 924 sq. kilometre buffer zone around it. Located across the Sheopur and Morena districts of Madhya Pradesh on the banks of the Chambal river, it was home to twenty-four villages and some 1650 residents, all of whom have been resettled.
The precious cargo of our newest feline friends arrived at their destination at 10:45 in the morning on the PM’s birthday, with three of them released by Modi himself.
The Cheetahs flew from Namibia’s capital Windhoek the previous night, landed at Gwalior's Maharajpur Air Force station at around 6 am on Saturday, and were then transported in two choppers to Palpur, some 165 km away from KNP. They made the last leg of their trip by surface transport.
The Cheetah intercontinental translocation project, under the aegis of the global “Project Cheetah,” has been long in the making, with efforts going back to 2009. There were several hurdles along the way, including a petition filed in the Supreme Court in 2012 alleging a violation of norms in the translocation.
It is only in the last couple of years, especially after studies showing a genetic similarity between Indian and African Cheetahs, that their reintroduction to India once again gathered momentum. Their successful relocation also signifies the strength of Indo-Namibian relations, with the prized predators serving as goodwill ambassadors.
As Prashant Agrawal, India's High Commissioner to Namibia, rightly pointed out, “This is a global first. This intercontinental translocation is the first of its kind, with no parallels ever. The reintroduction has a special significance as India marks its 75th independence anniversary.”
Indeed, if this experiment succeeds, thanks to all the efforts of all the stakeholders, including the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), similar efforts may be replicated with other endangered species in other parts of the world.
For the opposition, especially the Congress, which had initiated the project, it was a case of sour grapes. Someone even went to the extent of circulating morphed phots of Modi shooting photos with the cap still on the lens of his camera. But this fake image was soon exposed as an inept and clumsy attempt to slander the Prime Minister.
In the fake photo, the cover of the lens was a Canon, while the camera remained a Nikon. The genuine picture, lens uncovered, was once again published. The BJP, no doubt, was delighted with yet another faux pas on the part of the opposition.
Meanwhile, some media houses tried to dampen the enthusiasm sweeping across the country over this momentous arrival of Cheetah in India. They showed images of the poverty-stricken villagers in the surrounding area, complaining about the terrible conditions in which they lived.
However, other media reports quoted showed residents in the KNP periphery happy that the tourist traffic coming their way would create job opportunities and better living conditions for them.
The PM had the last word when, wearing a smart ranger’s hat, and surrounded by local youth, he asked, “Tell me, are animals a danger to humans or humans a danger to animals?” The youth, without hesitation, replied, “Humans are a danger to animals.” This just about sums up the most important environmental message of our times.
I am sure, the Cheetahs too would have growled their birthday greetings to the Indian Prime Minister, looking forward to their first meal, albeit not the proverbial birthday case, after travelling empty stomach for close to twenty-four hours.
On his part, most appropriately, Modi named one of the female felines he released, “Asha,” or Hope.