There’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of years amongst a niche section of society, this is a section however, that whilst relatively small, crosses all boundaries of age and sex, it is a broad cross section of people bound by a common passion, and that passion is the wildlife of India. The subject of their discussions has been the reintroduction of cheetahs to India, a much anticipated by some, ridiculed by others, project begun in 2009 and which came to fruition today.
There have been many articles published about this, mostly regurgitating the same scant facts. However, some of you may have missed these and so I will recapitulate them here for you.
The cheetah, once indigenous, is believed to have disappeared from the Indian landscape in 1947 when Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya princely state hunted down and shot the last three, as you would. They were declared officially extinct by the Indian government until 1952.
The cheetahs which have been reintroduced today are not the Asiatic Cheetahs that once roamed in India but African cheetahs. Why is this? The main reasons seem to be politics within Iran. From what I can tell, the powers that be don’t seem to be too concerned about the survival of last remaining Asiatic Cheetahs who’s numbers are down to 30 or so and may soon be extinct. This hypothesis is based on the information given, that Iran’s six leading cheetah scientists were jailed in 2016 on charges of spying. So, with no experts to work with, and Iran not seeming to care, if cheetahs were to be introduced, it had to be African ones which, by all accounts, are slightly bigger with sturdier necks and possibly not quite as fast as their Asiatic cousins.
The designated park for this reintroduction is Kuno Palpur in Madhya Pradesh, again a park not without controversy. Here we need to take a very brief look at the Asiatic Lion and a rare wildlife conservation success story. In 1913 it was estimated that there were only 20 Asiatic Lions left in the wild. The Nawab of Junagarh was protecting them from the local hunters within his own private hunting reserve. By 1965 they were finally given full official protection when Sasan Gir in Gujarat was declared a wildlife sanctuary. According to a census in 2015, numbers had risen to 523, by 2017 it was estimated that they were in their 600’s. The entire population lives in this small park, no bigger than the size of London, in Gujarat and they are now venturing into towns and onto beaches. Experts agree that with how numbers are growing and the space available, together with having all the lions in one place leaves the species vulnerable to extinction and that it would be prudent to expand their range to other parts of the country. Kuno Palpur National Park was designated as the park to rehome some of this population, between 1996 and 2002 villagers were rehomed, and the park was prepared however, Gujarat does not want to lose its’ monopoly on the species and no further action was taken. So now we have a park and no key species to fill it.
Skip forward through a lot of red tape and discussions and earlier this week, a customised B747 Jumbo Jet, painted with the face of a tiger, though I fail to see why, landed in Namibia to ferry the eight cheetahs who have been introduced into the Indian wildlife by Prime Minister Narendra Modi today, September 17th 2022.
I think that’s a summary of the main points, there have been many articles published around this with various experts being cited, google (other search engines are available) and you will be able to read as much or as little as you deem necessary. I also contacted various of my wildlife expert colleagues for their opinions which were mixed but one thing struck me. Not once (until today’s Indian Express) have I seen an article or heard a discussion about the adavasis or local tribal people. What about them?
Surely for any conservation project to be successful, the local people have to have a vested interest?
Any relocation project or introduction of a wildlife sanctuary or national park invariably involves the displacement of the local population, I wanted to know what was being done to both protect the indigenous population and to encourage them to assist in the protection of these poor cheetahs.
Traditionally these projects haven’t worked out in the people’s favour, they are always mired in controversy and mud-slinging and so I decided to find out more. I knew just the person. Vidya Venkatesh, Director of Last Wilderness Foundation, whose mission is: To increase awareness about India’s wildlife, its forests and the plight of its tribal populations, to provide assistance to various individuals and organisations (governmental or otherwise) in their battle to conserve its natural heritage and to be actively involved in the sustainable development of the villages and tribal settlements in the peripheries of its forests.
She immediately arranged a Zoom meeting for me with the RFO, Yash Vandu and the SDO Amritanshu Singh so that I could hear directly from the horses mouth the process required and the plans put in place to support these Sahariya adivasis who fall under the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group.
- A legal process had to be passed by the supreme court of India, and the resolution that was passed, in collaboration with a representational constitutional body was that each family would receive 15L to relocate.
- To be eligible, each family must consist of adults and children under the age of 18 years, they have to have been living continuously in the park for three years and must not own land elsewhere. If the parents are deceased, then the children as a unit are eligible for the compensation. All families have to be fully dependent on the village for their homes and livelihood.
- The resolution had to be passed in the Gram Sabha. The district collector (not the forest department) is the officer in charge of the relocation and a committee set up comprising tribals together with education, revenue and water development officials.
- In total, 243 families applied for the relocation package and 178 families were found to be eligible. In order to find a solution to the 61 remaining families and extension of 30 days was granted and an additional 13 crore rupees allocated to find a solution. I don’t have a current update on this.
The officials were convinced that moving these families would only enhance their quality of life as, according to them, inside the forest the resources are limited, it is an area which struggles with water, the ground water is 150m below the surface, and what started out as a small hamlet a few generations ago is now a sizeable village with no decent roads, hospital (nearest is 80 kms away) or secondary school (nearest is 40 kms away), electricity has only recently been installed and still this is very limited. Prospects are low, it was a hunter/gatherer existence, and the main source of income was the sale of forest produce such as resin from ‘chir’ trees along with ‘tendu’ leaves.
The families who are eligible for the 15L compensation then have options.
Option 1: To take the cash compensation in full and no land or house will be provided.
Option 2: To accept 2 hectares of land, in an area where terrain is rocky and difficult to farm, with no electricity and water hard to come by. However, out of the 15L compensation 35% will go towards ensuring that the land is ready for agriculture, 30% to install electricity and irrigation and 20% on the building of a house. They will be encouraged to work on preparing the land and their homes with an INR75,000 incentive meaning that the total monies paid will be 3.75L.
In addition, roads, a kindergarten, school, playground, community hall and crematorium will be constructed. During the construction process, the adivasis will be moved to a small settlement, and paid employment will be given to those who wish to assist in building the village and houses.
Vocational training is also being offered. The excellent Last Wilderness Foundation (you need to check them out www.thelastwilderness.org) is working together with the forest department in order to provide alternative livelihood options such as nature guides, homestays and soft skills. The NGO is also working with the villagers on ground to create awareness about the benefits of a healthy and protected forest. For this, they’re working with multiple stakeholders to not only encourage the villagers to send their children to schools but also finding alternative solutions to reduce the dependency of these people on the forests.
A move like this is always going to garner bad publicity, and there are always two sides to every story (In India, often more) and it is inevitable that it will be mired in controversy. When it was thought that the lions would be coming to Kuno Palpur, 24 villages were relocated outside the protected area between 1998 to 2003 and looking back over those articles written at that time shows just how controvertial this was. Now this is happening again, the removal of the last remaining villages and old sentiments and resentments have resurfaced. But along with this, having learnt from past experience, Governmental plans have also been remodelled to attempt to find better solutions than before. My conversation with Yash and Amritanshu who were keen to speak to me, were very upfront with all of their plans and spoke with great enthusiasm, left me feeling confident that they were determined to at least try to do their best for the people.
In this kind of sacenario, it is inevitable that there will always be people who feel cheated and people who will cheat, it is never straightforward. Similarly, it is inevitable that some don’t want the move, this is, after all, their home and has been for generations, whilst others welcome the change, “Our ancestors died here without access to electricity and water…now we want to give our children a better future.’’
Collaborations between the forest department and Last Wilderness are a positive step forward. Understanding the needs of these people is vital, working together with them, providing them with opportunities for a brighter future can only be beneficial. Listening to them, letting them know that their voices are heard and that people are there to help and provide opportunities, smooths the process. Understanding that their ways of life are coming under threat, that many don’t want change and helping them through this process is also a key element.
Personally, I am sceptical about the relocation of cheetahs into India, I am one of the naysayers. These cheetahs are going to have a tough time with an unfamiliar habitat and the imminent threat of the local, healthy leopard population and wolves. I will sit back and watch and hope that I am proved wrong. But one thing is certain, conservation projects work far better for the animals, when the local populations are involved. Getting them on board is vital, but in order to do this, they need to be shown how they can benefit. My sense from my conversation with the RFO and SDO is that they are doing their best to ensure a smooth transition and together with Last Wilderness, lets hope that it is so.
My Book, Escape to India is avaialable on Amazon.