A cheetah in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo: Wikipedia

Declared extinct in India in 1952, the cheetah is making a comeback to the country, which once held the distinction of being host to all five of the big-cat species of the Old World. The spotted feline will join its four panther cousins in India, where they are all either vulnerable or endangered.

On the occasion of his 72nd birthday on Saturday, September 17, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released three of the eight cheetahs brought from Namibia to India for the purpose of reintroduction into the wild, to much media hype and fanfare. The cheetahs were let loose in the Kuno National Park in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Plans are in place to release more cheetahs into other areas in stages.

The announcement of the reintroduction generated quite a buzz, with celebratory comments pouring on to social media.

‘Shared’ virtues

Modi is the leader of a right-wing regime that promotes an image of itself advocating aggressive progress and concrete developmental action through a bold macho-nationalistic ideology. The cheetah, with its virtues of velocity, precision, and impulse well ties in with the same.

The animal has had royal associations throughout India’s history, being used as targets as well as assistants in royal hunts. Ancient kings would hunt the cats, while many rulers of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire would catch wild cheetahs and use them for coursing their game pursuits.

Apart from recreational hunting by royals, trophy-hunting by nobles and poaching for sale by common people was also prevalent. The extensive use of cheetahs in hunts undertaken as leisurely pursuits by emperors, local kings, and British officers primarily led to their decline and ultimate extirpation in the subcontinent. 

Vanity project

Styled after India’s remarkably successful conservation measure Project Tiger of 1973, which managed to salvage and expand India’s critical tiger population, Project Cheetah is seen by many as a flamboyant, vacuous attempt by the government to divert attention from pressing ecological and welfare issues.

Unlike its pioneering tigrine predecessor, Project Cheetah is more of a vanity project than a conservation project – an avocation portrayed as an act of will and historic restoration.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Modi is notorious for its proclaimed attempts to right supposed historical wrongs and injustices. Its ideological inclination toward classical jingoism and traditionalist romanticism with its glorification and idealization of an imagined utopian past have driven divisive and narrow sectarian policy decisions.

These include the much-excoriated demolition of the Babri Mosque on grounds of claims of it being built in the 16th century by allegedly destroying an ancient Hindu temple in Ayodhya, and the push for replacement of two other major mosques with temples under similar pretexts.

The party’s beliefs and actions consistently lean toward a subconscious notion of recreating a golden bygone era predating the lamented arrival of Islam and the Western powers to India. It is a conception of a pristine India with a God-gifted exceptional nature and culture, a land and civilization in divine harmony, spoiled over the centuries by waves of corrupt, barbaric foreign assailants and their regimes.

It is the idea of an idyllic, bountiful land whose inhabitants, the “true” ancestors of Indians, lived far more prosperous, enriching, and fulfilling lives at the peak of human prowess and the pinnacle of intellectual and scientific advancement – a dream that to millions of Indians is not merely a figment of imagination, but a lost, recoverable relic of their heritage.

It is a cult of an imagined history pervading the national consciousness – a shared past that never was but is so widely and strongly believed in that it dictates everyday policy action. This oft vocally proclaimed ideal is in fact the BJP’s unique selling proposition. Nowhere in the world is the line between history and fiction as delicate as it is in India.

Project Cheetah is another of the government’s string of bids at desperately reproducing India’s past, or at least certain cherry-picked elements of Modi’s narrow view of it. One can’t help but perceive the move as being ideologically inspired and politically motivated, given how it was launched with the pomp and strategic timing that is typical of the Modi government.

Done with great motivation and symbolic intention, it is an ecologically unviable and inconsequential if not negatively consequential vanity plan along the lines of the Har Ghar Tiranga flag campaign and the Central Vista Project.

It is yet another of the diversionary tactics that have come to characterize the regime – recurrent novelties aimed at creating short-term excitement, albeit lasting long enough to distract the average citizen until the next pompous announcement or shock declaration of a kitschy policy measure.

Modi is a charismatic showman – his cult of personality is widespread. Flamboyant, resoundingly announced and pompously inaugurated measures such as these have been the norm of his two-term regime.

Rewriting parameters

The government has drawn the ire of scientists, environmentalists, and social activists for alleged greenwashing policies. It has craftily altered the definitions of what are classified as forests, wetlands, mangroves, and other key habitats in order to show an increase in forest cover, vegetation, and biomes, or in other cases conveniently exclude certain ecologically sensitive off-limit natural areas from their original terminological purview in order to render them developmentally viable (read economically-exploitable).

For example, in 2017, salt-pans were detached from the scope of definition of wetlands. This disentanglement from the label allowed the government to permit real-estate developers their lucrative economic usage, trampling over the voices of countless environmental experts, advocates, and civic activists.

Definition-tweaking, that is, being liberal with what constitutes what, engaging in subtle brinksmanship of wordplay, and treading the fine line of critical definitions, has characterized Modi’s legislation, enabling the government to introduce controversial laws by bypassing constitutional and popular safeguards.

Stretching definitions, at times rewriting them, helps bring the shore to the boat and fit any implementation within legislative justification. It is a sort of creative accounting that helps the government show positive change and expansion on its ecological balance-sheets while furtively continuing to structurally undermine the very foundations of ecological policy in India.

The government has put forth controversial laws on mining and environmental impact assessment that in essence give greater leeway to environmentally damaging economic activity, especially large resource-exploitative projects. 

In spite of his political will to act, India’s incumbent ruling government led by Prime Minister Modi has been frequently criticized for its characteristic lack of follow-up action to its myriad pompous declarations and inaugurations. Many of his major policy decisions across departments, fields, and sectors have been perceived as grand but ill-thought measures of good intention and high motivation but poor execution and implementation.

Political ploy

Modi is unique among Indian prime ministers in being extremely active in social media and branded by many as being, in general, an attention seeker, someone who thrives in the limelight. The Project Cheetah announcement and release by his hands on the occasion of his birthday let him bask for days in the spotlight.

While it may make political sense to leverage historico-cultural romanticism by reintroducing an animal steeped in the heritage and popular cultural imagination of the land, it doesn’t make ecological sense to take such a narrow and selective approach to ecological preservation.

Preservation efforts by nationalistic governments that frequently rely on and invoke traditional imagery and patriotic sentiment often tend to rely on kitschy symbolisms and selectively direct their conservation efforts toward megafauna. Such narrow focus is usually a distraction from more pressing requirements of a genuine holistic conservation policy. 

The African cheetahs brought to India from Namibia for the purpose of repopulation are out of place and out of time. The native Asiatic cheetah population in India sharply declined through the medieval and colonial eras and the species ultimately went extinct in the mid-20th century, around the same time that India achieved its independence.

Since then, the environmental landscape of India has changed greatly. The habitats dwelt in by the cheetah and the ecosystems that they were a part of have undergone qualitative and quantitative alteration. As a result, the reintroduced cheetahs will be out of their ecological context of seven decades ago.

The void that the extinction of the cheetah left has been filled over the intervening decades through subtle, gradual, but continuous internal readjustments of the ecosystem. The removal of the cheetah was a disturbance to the stability of the ecosystem; today its addition is just as much of a perturbation of its new stable state.

Ecosystems have a tendency to self-restore within reasonable bounds of amplitude, numerosity, and frequency of changes. More often than not, the recovery somewhat alters the ecosystem from it original state. A drastic change in any major component of the ecosystem causes the various co-factors to stir, budge and reposition in chain reactions.

The latter settle in new states, slightly shifted from their former positions, to accommodate the change as long as its intensity and pace does not take it beyond the tipping point, thus establishing a new overall equilibrium for the ecosystem.

The loss of such a large predator as the cheetah was a gaping wound that was gradually, albeit vigorously, inflicted and then gradually healed. Trying to inject the species back into the transformed habitat would be akin to trying to shove a detached toenail back into the healed nailbed years after its detachment.

Further, the ecosystem itself has been drastically remolded by human activity, with major factors being rapid population growth, agricultural expansion, and urbanization. Our population distribution, lifestyle patterns, and priorities as individuals and as a society have shifted far from their positions in the past century and the pressures exerted by them have reshaped and resized natural habitats.

Put simply, the environment of the revenant species has moved on from the state it was in at the time of their association.

Similar to a lot of well-intentioned but poorly planned indiscriminate reforestation efforts in India, this reintroduction is a naïve narrow-vision effort agnostic to the ecological co-factors of the organism.

To relocate any organism, ensuring the suitability of its new habitat and the availability of its diet is essential. Cheetahs primarily prey on deer, antelope, wild sheep and goat, and hares. They also occasionally hunt rodents and birds. Many animals that would have served as prey for the cheetahs of India are now low in numbers, and some are extinct.

Further, the cats’ introduction adds a major predator to the ecosystem, which could potentially jeopardize the survival of a number of endangered natural, opportunistic, or compulsive prey species. The entry of this anachronistic large carnivore into the habitat could derail the conservation of a number of vulnerable and endangered native species such as the four-horned antelope and the swamp deer.

Were the big cat’s population to expand, in the long run, cheetahs could come in conflict with pastoralists residing in the rural areas surrounding the reserves who would herd their sheep and goat to graze in the grasslands.

It is vital for conservation efforts to view ecosystems as much more than the sum of their parts – ecosystems are unified, integrated entities, not a collection of disjointed biotic and abiotic components. It is thus crucial not to be led astray by our fascination with certain elements of any ecosystem – typically culturally significant or esthetically appealing macrofauna.

Conservation with selective focus or anthropocentric biases, whether economic, cultural, or political, is likely to backfire dangerously.

This is the first article of a two-part series.

Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a journalist, columnist, writer, independent researcher, haiku poet, and verbal ability trainer. His writing has appeared in more than 150 outlets across 50+ countries. He is currently based out of Xavier School of Management (XLRI Jamshedpur).