Ecosystems should be viewed as entities in dynamic equilibria. A holistic viewpoint is essential.
Ecosystems comprise countless biotic and abiotic components with myriad delicately balanced interactions between them that keep going on incessantly and only alter and shift gradually over the long term. Ecosystems could be very loosely thought of as superorganisms that themselves evolve.
Just as various tissues in the body need to be in sync and work in tandem, the components of an ecosystem must work concordantly and harmoniously with one another.
Often there are acute disruptions that bring catastrophic change and usurp the smooth continuity of ecological evolution – natural disasters like volcanic eruptions, floods, or wildfires and human-made events like wars and oil spills.
In many cases, human activity takes a gradual toll on nature over decades or centuries. Of course, even this pace of destruction often is still orders of magnitude higher than the natural recovery and recuperation rate of ecosystems.
But after temporarily tumbling and vacillating, ecological cycles ultimately set up a new, stable equilibrium that continues largely unchanged in the short term until the next major disruption.
This even applies to acute catastrophes, only with a more conspicuously unstable and dramatic phase of recovery.
The extirpation of a major predator such as the cheetah from the ecosystem was one such change. In India, the decline of the cheetah happened over the course of centuries, which by ecological evolutionary standards is still very rapid. Nonetheless, many ecosystems that the cheetah was a part of continuously adjusted to this change, reversibly in the short term and permanently in the long term.
This gradual adjustment ultimately led the cheetah to settle to a new equilibrium, contributed to in no small part by the accompaniment of other changes including the extirpation and decline of other species as well as the shrinkage of its habitat.
The Indian grasslands where hundreds of cheetahs roamed centuries ago have all now settled into new, stable ecological rhythms over the years. They would resist any significant change (inclusion, exclusion, or alteration) to their equilibrium state in the short term. But if the change is firmly and persistently applied, it might upset the delicate balance of the ecosystem, throwing it into at least a temporary spiral of chaotic vacillation or tumble.
It is a double jeopardy. On one hand, if the cheetahs are resisted by an unsuitable ecosystem, the population might ultimately die out, rendering the entire effort futile or at least, not prosper enough to justify the generous efforts and resources put into the Indian government’s Cheetah Project.
Lack of natural and probable prey and likely competition and conflict with the existent apex predator, the Indian leopard, and various opportunistic mesopredators might prove to be factors adversely affecting the sustainability of the population.
On the other hand, if the cheetahs perchance happen to find the ecosystem favorable and thrive in it, they might temporarily usurp the predator-prey balance against the prey, endangering many species. This would lead to adverse oscillations – waves sent down the food chain in the form of rise and fall of successive trophic levels, propagating back and forth.
Cheetahs being at the apex of the food chain, in most habitats reinserting them would cause the populations of their prey – medium-sized herbivores – to decline quickly, which might lead to an overgrowth of the latter’s diet, that is, grassland vegetation. In turn, as prey numbers do not recover quickly, ultimately the guest cheetahs could prove to be the cause of their own undoing.
In sum, after the sudden reintroduction of these animals, since no member of the food chain would have time to cope and adapt to the change, the entire food chain would be thrown into chaos, being unable to readjust to settle into a new equilibrium that fast.
In the off-chance that they find their new circumstances extraordinarily conducive to their survival proliferation, cheetahs might even prove to be invasive, outcompeting certain other carnivores, thus imperiling their survival.
Hence the move leads to a nigh lose-lose scenario – the inbound cheetahs are perched on a spire of stability overlooking steep slopes on either side. In the end, it is all about balance, timescales, and the gentleness of change.
The bottom line is to not perturb the sanctity of ecosystems with external shocks like abrupt addition or removal of major components. Throwing a large predator into the fray is likely to disturb the delicate and intricate functional arrangement of a sensitive and already-threatened ecosystem.
Further, it is not just the components of the ecosystem that would limit the project but also the very expanse of the ecosystem itself.
According to data reported by the government of India to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) during the 14th Conference of Parties held in India in 2019, the country lost a shocking 31% (about 56.500 square kilometers) of its grassland area in the 2005-2015 decade.
India continues to lose its grasslands to desertification, agriculture, and construction activities. While the nation has taken a number of significant measures to protect and recover its forests, most conservation efforts have turned a blind eye to its grasslands.
Cheetahs inhabit open grasslands and scrublands, with breeding males being highly territorial, often claiming and defending about 40-80 square kilometrs of territory each. It is vital to ensure that open, unfragmented grassland habitats be made available to the cheetah populace for them to thrive, which would prove to be a challenging task for a country experiencing massive population growth, turbulent migration, habitat destruction, and expansion of infrastructural built-up areas.
Further, given how prone the animals are to poachers for their precious pelts, the Forest Department would need to commit additional resources and personnel to keep vigilance over their expansive territory and keep track of the whereabouts of each valuable individual cheetah.
Small populations, big dangers
Apart from the shrinkage of the total grassland area, there is another habitat crisis that would pose a major challenge to the project. India’s grasslands are segmented by farmlands, rural habitation, and roads, particularly highways, leading to habitat fragmentation.
Since the nucleus population of the reintroduced cheetahs is already small, being in a fragmented habitat would prevent healthy gene flow, increasing inbreeding, leading to a dangerously high prevalence of hereditary disorders and ailments.
Small populations of wild animals are difficult to sustain. Continued inbreeding over generations leads to loss of fertility, aggravating the jeopardy to the survival of the population. Low genetic diversity would diminish the quality of individual animals, increase the risk of adverse disproportionation from genetic drift, and make the population prone to obliteration by a single potential epidemic.
As a result, when a population is fragmented into multiple restricted sub-zones of a region, the confined sub-populations quickly succumb to hereditary and infectious ailments. Madhya Pradesh, the central Indian state where our feline guests are being released into, has had a poor track record of managing its many sanctuaries and reserves, being recently embroiled in a major controversy over tiger corridors set to be disrupted by indiscriminate highway construction.
Given that the spotted big cat happens to be a common trophy animal and the possessor of a prized hide, the Forest Department would have to commit additional resources to safeguard it from hunting and poaching.
Lessons from the past
Attempts to import African cheetahs into India were made during the later part of the colonial period itself, given how quickly the reckless hunting by the British colonists and Indian provincial royals decimated the cheetah populations in most parts of the subcontinent. The demand always far exceeded the supply, and no significant captive breeding efforts were ever made.
India’s viewpoint toward subspecies in conservation seems conveniently self-serving given how it recently declared the caracal, another wild cat, endangered when the International Union for Conservation of Nature cited it as a least-concern species. The move on India’s part was quite reasonable, if not long overdue, given how the IUCN’s indiscriminate conservation status evaluation and ascription is agnostic to subspecies, let alone make a distinction between statuses of the same subspecies in different regions.
The IUCN classifies the caracal as a “least concern” species given its sizable, thriving population in Africa, which leads to the total global population appearing sound and stable. India has fewer than 50 caracals left and no recent population surveys have been conducted, leading to fears that the species might as well be extirpated in the country.
It is ecologically sensible to evaluate conservation statuses for a species within each distinct ecosystem considering the myriad interdependencies of various components of an ecosystem. Hence it constitutes a double standard when India introduces the southeast African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) to take the place of its native Asiatic cheetah (A jubatus venaticus).
Other problems aside, it would have still been more defensible to reintroduce the Asiatic cheetah by sourcing the animals from Iran, though the feasibility of that is highly questionable, given their critically low population there itself.
The two subspecies, though evolutionarily recently diverged, are distinct, and India is in essence flouting an international understanding of refraining from importing exotic creatures. IUCN guidelines explicitly caution against the translocation of creatures to non-native habitats.
Bringing in a new sister subspecies in a bid to replace a local human-extirpated subspecies is reminiscent of how individuals try to cope with the loss of a key figure in their lives, only here it’s a culture, a civilization trying to come to terms with an absence and perhaps its guilt. Nonetheless, it’s a misplaced and futile effort.
Against the backdrop of ongoing ecological negligence and legislative irresponsibility, the Cheetah Project seems not only foolhardy but also disrespectful, given the triviality of its consequentiality. An extinct species should be treated as a departed soul, its absence serving to remind us of the importance of preserving biodiversity and taking urgent action for those still alive.
Unless reintroduction serves to fill a gaping ecological gap promptly, de-extinction would always be more of a bothersome desanctifying Frankensteinish fad than a restorative remedy.
It is also important to overcome esthetic biases in conservation allocation and resist the temptation of skewing our focus on visually or culturally impressive flora and fauna. Large predators need not always be keystone species in an ecosystem. The reintroduction of the cheetah to India seems to be driven more by a sense of anthropological arrogance, authority, and control than genuine regret and remorse as a civilization.
The revival attempt is another iteration of the same whim of man that led to the extinction of the species in the first place. The entire project lacks nuanced consideration and seems arbitrary, compulsive, and forced.
Instead of yielding to anthropocentric vainglory and political idiosyncrasy by making desperate visionless bids to revive an irrecoverable species in an endeavor to catch a glimpse of the glory of a coveted lost past, India should instead direct its efforts toward preserving its existing 15 wild-cat and other species.
The government should focus on effectively saving and prospering what we still have – from the fishing cat in the east to the Asiatic lion in the west to the elusive clouded leopard and snow leopard in the north.
As recently as the early 20th century, tigers ranged from Turkey, Iran and Kazakhstan to the Korean Peninsula. We hardly see any of the 25 or so modern-day nations that boasted tigers until a few centuries ago, perhaps with the exception of Kazakhstan, making any attempt to bring them back.
Lions historically ranged all over Africa, southern Europe and western Asia. Imagine reintroducing the mega-predators to the wildernesses of countries like Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey, places that have moved ahead centuries to a new anthropogenic equilibrium.
India needs to take a holistic, integrated, mature approach to environmental preservation, viewing ecosystems as complex unified systems knit with intricately interwoven dependencies and just as tangled interactions, rather than a mere collection of standalone individual components.
The value of an ecosystem far exceeds the sum of its parts, with innumerable synergistic and competitive evolutionary interplays transpiring within it. India needs to grow its habitats beyond paper and be mindful of the need of harmony and synchronization with and within nature.
This is the second article of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.