Have you recovered from the cheetah attack?” – this is a question I often face these days. I wish it was the cheetah. But unfortunately, in the minds of most of us, the leopard is confused with the cheetah. We do not realise that the cheetah was one of the little-known victims of extinction at a time when we were rejoicing the country’s independence. In 1947, the last of the Indian cheetahs were hunted by Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of the erstwhile state of Korea (in the current state of Madhya Pradesh), bringing in a sad end to one of the graceful cats described by Emperor Akbar as ‘one of God’s wonders’. Thereafter, a few patchy, unverified records of cheetah sightings have been registered till 1968.
It is indeed an irony that the etymology of the word ‘cheetah’ comes from the Sanskrit name ‘chitraka’, meaning the spotted one. Also called the hunting leopard in English, this graceful cat once roamed the grasslands and plains of pre-independent India in the present-day states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, and ranged widely in the Deccan Plateau through Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar, Chattisgarh and West Bengal.
In Karnataka, cheetahs were recorded from Ballari, Mysuru and Chamarajanagara. Sixteen cheetahs were known to be used by Tipu Sultan, of which three of them were sent to King Geroge III after Tipu fell in the Battle of Srirangapatna. Two skins were seen in the 1860s in the Mysore state by G P Sanderson, a British officer who took a keen interest in wildlife.
In 1882, another British officer, Russell, saw five cheetahs near Beerambadi, which is at the northern edge of what is the present-day Bandipur Tiger Reserve, of which one was shot dead. A district manual of Coimbatore, published in 1887, records the cheetah in Bandhalli in Kollegala taluk, Chamarajanagara district, very close to the southern boundaries of the present-day Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. A cheetah was seen by the British coffee planter Morris, between 1890 and 1895, near Attikalpura, about 15 km from Chamarajanagara town.
I learnt my Kannada word for cheetah, ‘Sivangi’, from my father when he took me to a circus in my younger days. Three decades later, I read the word again in the acclaimed book on cheetahs, The End of a Trail, by Divyabhanusinh.
There was a curious relationship between this graceful cat and humans. Cheetahs were domesticated by Egyptians as early as 1700 BC, a culture which later spread to Assyria, and finally into India and Central Asia. Sanskrit literature and Muslim records in India depict the training of cheetahs to course antelopes, but at later stages of history. Its downfall in India is largely attributed to the disappearance of its natural habitat – the grasslands to agriculture – and other developmental activities, and to the hunting of cheetahs for sport by the erstwhile princes, Mughal kings, and later the British rulers.
Cheetahs occupied a unique place in the imperial court life and the pastime of many Indian rulers. Mughals collected cheetahs for their royal hunts, ironically to hunt the cheetah’s prey species – the antelopes. Emperor Akbar is recorded to have collected 1,000 cheetahs. However, in his entire reign, he may have collected as many as 9,000 cheetahs. Even the Hindu kings of Rajasthan and Maharashtra used cheetahs to hunt antelopes, but the impact of the Mughals on cheetahs is of a vast and lavish scale for all times, say historical records. The enterprise of hunting also had a direct consequence on the range contraction of its primary prey, the chinkara, and the blackbuck. In 1619, Mughal King Jahangir, in a span of 12 days, hunted 426 antelopes in Palam (where the Delhi airport is now located) as per wildlife historian Mahesh Rangarajan. Such was the scale of hunting!
Cheetawala pardhis, the hunter/trapper tribals originating from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, with specialised skills to capture and train cheetahs, were appointed on a monthly salary to catch cheetahs. They caught the animals through various means including pitfall traps and snaring, and sold to the durbars.
Cheetah has also been a victim of conflict. It came into direct conflict with people by preying on domestic sheep and goat, resulting in retaliatory killing, one of the possible causes for its declining numbers.
Current & historical distribution
Today, the swiftest mammal on earth exists in 23 countries in Africa, and is found in only one relict population in Asia, in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This depicts that this unique member of the cat family has perhaps vanished from approximately 91% of its historic range, with about 7,000 individuals surviving in the wild.
In Asia, the cheetah survives precariously in Iran with about 40-70 individuals surviving in the Miandasht Wildlife Refuge, Touran Biosphere Reserve, Naybandan Wildlife Sanctuary and, possibly in the Darband-e Ravar Wildlife Refuge, according to the Iranian Cheetah Society.
In other parts of Asia, it had ranged in Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Saudi, Israel, Jordan, Oman and a few other countries till the early 1950s with India being its easternmost boundary. They were also found in the former USSR states of Turkmenistan, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan regions, but none exist in these countries today.
Over its entire present-day distribution, the drivers of the decline of this cat, known for its docility, include loss of prey species, conflict with humans, and habitat loss. It’s classified under the ‘vulnerable’ category by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but its subspecies found in Northwest Africa and Iran are classified as ‘critically endangered’. Cheetah’s speed is legendary, and nothing in nature can outrun a cheetah. But, there are no solutions to high-speed vehicular traffic in Iran. According to the Iranian Cheetah Society, of the 34 known cheetah deaths since 2001, 15 cheetahs were killed in vehicular collisions. That’s a very high rate, considering the tiny population of Asiatic cheetahs.
However, cheetahs in Iran are now a symbol of wildlife conservation.Even their national football team has adopted the cheetah as its logo on its jerseys.
Did the cheetah exist in India?
Some well-known naturalists, including Kailash Sankhala, argue that cheetahs are not native to India, and that they were brought to the country by princes and potentates for sport. Noted among them include Valmik Thapar, who writes in Exotic Aliens (the book he has co-authored with Romila Thapar & Yusuf Ansari) that “there was never an Asiatic cheetah”, and “cheetahs in India came into this country as gifts or tributes, and were imported by land and sea from Africa and Persia.” He bolsters his arguments by the fact that there was a flourishing trade in animals from Africa to India by the Romans.
It is also argued that the British shikar literature hardly has any mention of the cheetahs. On the contrary, Divyabhanusinh’s book argues that the cheetah population was already dwindling, and the animal had become very rare in India in the 19th and 20th centuries. This necessitated the import of these animals from Africa, for cheetah coursing, by princely states.
But what is notable is that most art history in India depicts cheetahs from the 12th century onwards, while the tiger, leopard and other big cats have been depicted in several of our art forms from time immemorial. However, Divyabhanusinh’s book has shown Neolithic paintings depicting cheetahs from the cave shelters at Kharvai near Bhopal, Chatarbhujnath in Chambal valley, and several other locations. In all probability, these cave paintings are assumed to be products of the ancestors of today’s tribals of non-Aryan and non-Dravidian origin. Perhaps this provides a very ancient evidence of the cheetah’s presence in India.
Thapar also says that the cheetahs in Mysuru and Bengaluru areas were escapees from royal menageries. Nevertheless, the authors of Exotic Aliens agree to the fact that there is no conclusive genetic evidence to prove or disprove their theory. And geneticists have said that African and Asiatic cheetahs had been separated thousands of years ago.
History has to grapple with science, chiefly biogeography, if it has to make its point based on species distribution. Biogeographers could pose serious questions about the theories raised by Valmik Thapar. India is part of the Ethiopian biogeography where similar species including gazelles, antelopes, and small and large carnivores are found across continents. Hence, convincing biogeographers from this perspective would have further enriched the claims made in Exotic Aliens.
With the cheetah extinct in India, the issue of reintroduction has been bandied about from time to time. “Thanks to Project Cheetah, the cheetah may well roam the plains of India again,” declares a Ministry of Environment and Forests document from September 2010. Several attempts were made to reintroduce them during 2010-2011. When Iran refused to part with its cheetahs for reintroduction, India looked towards Africa, and a few cheetahs were planned to be brought from Namibia.
The Nauradehi and Kuno-Palpur wildlife sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh, and the Shahgarh landscape in Rajasthan were identified as potential areas for cheetah reintroduction. But the top court of the country had other ideas and shot down the then government’s proposal. Sadly, today, the issue of cheetah reintroduction has gone silent in the country.
Apart from the cheetah, in India, four other large mammalian wildlife species went extinct in the first 50 years of the 20th century – the Javan and Sumatran rhinos, the Sikkim stag, and the banteng. All of them seem to be wildlife species that are adapted to specialised habitats. These habitat specialists lost ground in India well before the Wildlife Protection Act was enacted in 1972. Despite strict enforcement of the act, we seem to have failed to learn our lessons from the extinction of cheetahs and other species, as we continue to lose habitat specialist species such as the great Indian bustard, Bengal florican, Siberian crane, Jerdon’s courser, Indian wolf, wild buffalo, and many others that go unnoticed. Hence, a critical question to ask is – are we failing to understand and manage the needs of the habitat specialists?
Date: 2 Dec 2017