Monday, July 02, 2012

Cheetah reintroduction stirs up debate

Cheetah reintroduction stirs up debate
The Times of Indai By Vijay Pinjakar

Even as the Supreme Court will hear a petition opposing reintroduction of cheetah in India on Monday, the issue has stirred up a debate over issues raised in the petition.

On May 8, 2012, the court had stayed the import of cheetahs to India. The matter came up for hearing on reintroduction of Asiatic lions from Gir Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.

The project has been proposed by Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has decided to introduce African cheetahs from Namibia to Kuno. The petitioners contend that the proposed project is misconceived and the decision is being taken without following legal procedure.

Prerna Bindra, member of standing committee, National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), has categorically opposed the cheetah project on rational and logical considerations.

"Emotions should not rule the fray. There is need to clinically examine the issue before we pour taxpayers' money into this grand venture," she said. The idea that the cheetah will 'save' grasslands by serving as its flagship species is utopian, Bindra adds.

However, wildlife biologist Milind Pariwakam, who feels the project will help India get back a threatened species, says the petition is based on wrong assumptions.

The petitioners have said that International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines do not allow African cheetah import. However, Pariwakam says petitioners have attached old guidelines of 1987.

"The cheetah was native to India. All cheetahs belong to the same species and thus there is no bar by the IUCN on reintroducing cheetahs to India. The IUCN guidelines issued in 1998 allow sub-import of African cheetah. Red-necked ostrich was introduced when African ostrich went extinct," he says.

Another issue the petitioners have raised is that cheetah is an exotic animal. But the species is not exotic and was always present in India till extinction in the 1950s.

The petition opposing cheetah says that the NBWL has not approved the project. But Pariwakam said cheetah issue was tabled in NBWL. "The NBWL could have objected earlier if it wanted to," the wildlife biologist stated.

However, Bindra says the proposal was never tabled before the standing committee. "I was the first to oppose it," she said.

Pariwakam has also countered the claim of the petitioners that detailed studies have not been done on cheetah reintroduction. But the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) has done detailed studies and the report is available.

The petitioners have quoted a scientific paper by P Charruau of University of Veterinary Medicine, Austria, and colleagues stating that Iranian cheetahs should be used for reintroduction considering the genetic differences between the two subspecies.

However, Pariwakam says if the paper is read in its entirety, cheetahs in Africa have a higher genetic diversity, a key feature to prevent inbreeding, and therefore, are better candidates for reintroduction.

The petitioners have said that the National Wildlife Action Plan does not mention cheetah reintroduction, but that does not mean that it is barred.

"By the same standards, the action plan does not mention tiger reintroduction also, but that hasn't stopped us from reintroducing tigers into Sariska and Panna or the gaurs into Bandhavgarh," Pariwakam said.

Bindra says, "Forests have shrunk rapidly. Man-animal conflict is at its peak and we are fighting a losing battle to protect every inch of tiger land from mines, highways and industry. If we cannot take the concerns of the national animal on board, what hope is there for the cheetah?"

Pariwakam says introduction of lions in Kuno has far greater potential to create conflict since lions will prey on cattle and can potentially kill people, while cheetah can potentially only predate sheep and goats. Cheetahs can coexist with lions.

Petitioners View

* IUCN guidelines do not allow African cheetah import says 1987 guidelines.

* Cheetah is an exotic animal.

* NBWL has not approved the project.

* Detailed studies have not been done.

* Scientific paper says Iranian cheetahs should be reintroduced considering the genetic differences between the two subspecies.

* Each cheetah to cost Rs2 crore.

Biologist Counterview

* Petitioners have not talked about 1998 IUCN guidelines which allow sub-import of African cheetahs.

* Cheetah is not exotic to India. The species was always present in India till extinction.

* The issue was tabled in NBWL.

* The WII, Dehradun, has conducted detailed studies and report is available.

* Paper actually says that African cheetah is more genetically variable and can be introduced.

* Cheetahs are being donated free by Cheetah Conservation Fund, Namibia. Only transport cost is to be incurred.

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