The fastest terrestrial animal will soon be hunting on some new territory. Over a decade since India first renewed efforts to bring cheetahs back to the subcontinent, the country’s environmental ministry has locked in a plan to reintroduce the predator, which went extinct just after the country’s independence in 1948.
The benefit for the fast cat is clear: With cheetahs driven out of over 90 percent of their historical range and the Asiatic subspecies wiped out, except for a few dozen cats spotted in Iran, a growing and stable population in a new location could help ensure the long-term survival of the charismatic predator. But a successful reintroduction could have even larger effects as well: Ecologists working on reintroduction hope that the cheetah’s return could play a role in preserving overlooked grasslands and, perhaps, in dampening carbon emissions in what’s expected to be the most populous nation by the end of the decade.
Researchers, conservationists, and companies like Coca-Cola have acknowledged that charismatic animals help attract funding and political will for projects that otherwise may be overlooked (think big furry mammals, for the most part: the polar bear in the Arctic, the gray wolf in the American West). By serving as the mascot to save a local habitat, these animals can enable — but not guarantee — the larger preservation of their homes. As conservationist and head investigator on India’s cheetah project Yadvendradev Jhala wrote in 2010, “The venture must be viewed not simply as an introduction of a species, however charismatic it may be, but as an endeavour to better manage and restore some of our most valuable yet most neglected ecosystems and the species dependent upon them.”
The cats will come from Namibia and South Africa, nations with stable cheetah populations that can afford to dole out a few dozen over the next few years. Sedated and shipped out for the flight, a first group of eight to ten will soon find themselves in the forest-grassland blend at Kuno National Park. While it’s been a long wait, Jhala described reintroduction, which was first tried and failed in the 1970s, as “a childhood dream, to see the cheetah running on Indian soil.”
Unfortunately, that dream is going to have to wait a little longer. Due to the horrific surge of coronavirus cases throughout India, Jhala has been stuck at the Wildlife Institute of India he heads in the foothills of the Himalaya, almost 700 kilometers north of where the forest staff is preparing for the cheetahs’ arrival, which he still hopes can occur “by the end of the year.”
It’s a tight timeline, considering the scale of reintroduction. Teaching park staff to manage the animals is one of the biggest lifts — particularly if it needs to be done over Zoom. Laurie Marker, the director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund who is advising the training on the reintroduction from her home base in Namibia, explains that the hurdles the cats will face are similar to the ones a group of humans would face if dropped into an unfamiliar wilderness. “When they’re dropped into a new place, the main thing is discovery,” she says. “Where do I find food, where do I find water? Our job is to facilitate that for the cheetahs so that they can explore and discover.” And, eventually, to hunt new prey species, mate, and raise cubs to maturity.
Proponents of the program hope that success for the cheetah means success for the grasslands, which India desperately needs. Between 2005 and 2015, the nation lost 31 percent of its grassland forests — close to 14 million acres — due in part to environmental laws dating back to the British Raj declaring grasslands to be wasteland. This area, larger than West Virginia, serves as an incredibly efficient carbon sink in semi-arid and arid zones receiving below 1,000 millimeters of rainfall a year. “The thing that can grow fastest in such an environment is grass, and grasslands tend to sequester carbon below ground,” explains Abi Tamim Vanak, who is on the faculty at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment. Critically, when carbon is stored underground, it tends to stay underground, unlike in forests, where trees store CO2 in trunks and leaves, which can be burned for fuel and in wildfires.
Carbon sinks will be an essential tool for the third-largest consumer of energy to maintain a grip on its emissions as it works to get off coal, which accounted for 74 percent of India’s electricity generation in 2018. Indeed, India’s commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement depend on tucking a lot of carbon away, as its pledge includes a goal to increase its cumulative carbon-sink function to 2.5-to-3 billion tons of CO2 by 2030. Unlike most countries involved in the landmark framework, India is roughly on track to reduce 35 percent of its emissions intensity of GDP by 2030, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And while the NRDC reports that India is behind on the forest-cover front, if grassland restoration becomes a focus, the cheetahs could help the nation catch up to its Paris goal over the next decade.
That’s a whole lot of cheetah-print dominoes to fall into place for the cat’s reintroduction to influence carbon-sink grasslands in order to meet an international climate mandate. But Jhala hopes that “with the Indian youth becoming more aware and conscious of the environment and wildlife,” politicians and their young voting blocs will “consider environmental regulation as one of the manifestos for a political party to put forward.”
As the program finds its footing, skeptics with strong arguments have emerged to question its efficacy. Those critiques begin with the idea that reintroduction is really just a first introduction. The Asiatic cheetah, smaller and sleeker than its sub-Saharan cousin, is extinct outside of small groups in the semi-arid expanses of Iran. Pulling from those remote groups could jeopardize the existence of the subspecies, which is why they’ll be coming from Africa. Though one conservation geneticist compared the idea to dropping a lion into a European nature preserve, Jhala argues that, even though they split off from each other tens of thousands of years ago, the two types of cats “fill the same ecological niche,” and that the plan is in line with guidelines from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the group that determines the endangered-species list.
Jhala is fully aware of this criticism. “Of course it’s playing God,” he says of the ambitious nature of the project. But with cheetahs dropping from an estimated 100,000 worldwide in the late 19th century to just over 7,100 cats in 2020, he thinks it’s “high time we start playing God. The problem is humans have been playing the devil on the planet for too long.”
The reverberative climate and carbon-sink effects have also been questioned. Vanak, for one, casts doubt on the assumption that reintroduction will directly benefit restoration, as the cheetahs will return to a forest-grassland interface that is, for the most part, already protected. He also notes that the grasslands already have some (less) charismatic animals, like the Indian wolf and the endangered great Indian bustard, and their presence has done little to convince lawmakers to protect their biome.
Though the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have made progress toward India’s Paris goals, Vanak’s colleague at the Ashoka Trust, environmental lawyer and policy analyst Mridula Paul, notes that Modi’s own record on conservation is “abysmal.” In a 2013 decision, when he was the head of the state of Gujarat, he refused a Supreme Court order to relocate Asiatic lions to the Kuno sanctuary, because his state was the “last home of the Asiatic lion and did not want to share that title with” the state surrounding Kuno, Madhya Pradesh. There’s also Modi’s reported personal push to amend environmental laws to appease real-estate developers, and the concern that democratic backsliding under his watch could limit green political pressure in the future. In an email, Paul wrote that she fears that the focus on charismatic species could be an “eyewash to distract from the catastrophic ecological and social destruction of many of the economic decisions and policies of the government.”
Nevertheless, cheetah reintroduction remains the kind of big thinking needed to tackle a worldwide effort in which conservation plays a key role in mitigating climate change. While parts of India already face temperatures above 122 degrees Fahrenheit in heat waves amplified by climate change, modeling suggests that “wet-bulb temperatures” — heat and humidity that make being outdoors in the shade physically unsurvivable for over five hours — have an 80 percent chance of occurring once a decade in parts of northern India by 2050.
Conservation is a long game: Pursuing the survival of a species is not just about hitting a goal in a decade, or at the half-century mark, but ensuring an animal’s survival in perpetuity. And from this long-term perspective, Laurie Marker is confident in the program’s eventual success. As she explains, it could take a decade to get a viable breeding population, given the slow introduction of individuals in small groups, the time it will take to establish their territories, and the two-year period for a mother to raise her cubs to independence. “Nothing happens overnight,” she says. Especially not a real-life Operation Dumbo Drop of big cats into a country on another continent, and during a deadly pandemic.
This post has been updated to attribute a quote to environmental lawyer Mridula Paul, which was originally attributed to researcher Abi Tamim Vanak.