By Samarth Jain | Illustration by Rushad Irani

Most of India’s protected areas that fall within national parks and wildlife sanctuaries are termed ‘forest.’ If you ask a child where wild animals live, they will without hesitation tell you ‘the jungle.’ But is this really true or are there other habitats that wild animals call home?

The vast stretches of land which lack any trees and are covered by grasses and shrubs are often called wastelands – land that serves no purpose. But if you take a closer look, you will find that these so-called wastelands actually support a wide array of wildlife.

Kuno’s grasslands are the perfect habitat for the cheetah (Photo from News18)

These are not wastelands but the fascinating Indian ‘grasslands. Numerous unique and endangered species are found here, including the Great Indian Bustard, Blackbuck, Indian wolf and Striped hyena, to name a few. But these grasslands do not only support wild animals; they are also the grazing grounds for village cattle and thus also play an important economic role in the livelihoods of cattle herders. Environmentally, grasslands act as carbon sinks that alleviate greenhouse gas emissions by storing atmospheric carbon in their soils and plants. Yet despite their ecological, economical and environmental importance, the Indian government does not recognize these grasslands as areas of ecological significance. It is now of the utmost importance that both the government and the people of India recognize the importance of our grasslands.

In order to revive grasslands and spread awareness about wildlife conservation, the government proposed a novel idea – bringing back cheetahs to India. These beautiful spotted cats once roamed in India’s open grasslands, but due to wide-scale hunting for the entertainment of British officials and Indian Maharajas, their numbers reduced and finally, they were officially declared extinct in the year 1952. With their extinction, the ecological equilibrium became imbalanced and the expansion of human settlements and farmland acted as the final nail in the coffin. These actions also threatened the protection of grasslands.

Asiatic Cheetahs were already scarce globally, so their African counterpart (the African cheetah) was chosen for the reintroduction project. After a lot of hurdles, the Indian Supreme Court finally gave the green flag to bring cheetahs from Africa to see if they would be able to survive in India. And thus began the process of finding a suitable habitat for the cheetahs.

After a lot of research, site inspections and discussion, Kuno National Park located in Sheopur district in Madhya Pradesh was chosen. This national park had ample stretches of arid grassland and a good prey base. Prey species included deer like the chital (spotted deer) and sambar, chinkara (Indian gazelle), chausingha (four-horned antelope), blackbuck, and nilgai which were found in huge numbers in Kuno. After much deliberation, officials initiated the transport of eight African cheetahs from Namibia to Kuno National Park.

The return of the cheetah to India (Photo from Madhya Pradesh Tourism)

Finally, it was the big day! On 17th September 2022, eight cheetahs – five females and three males – arrived at Kuno from Namibia. This was a big feat in the history of wildlife conservation since this was the first intercontinental introduction of a wild species into India. This was also a very proud moment for the state of Madhya Pradesh.

Sheopur, one of the most backward and famine-hit districts in the state, was engulfed in the air of euphoria. An immense crowd welcomed the eight spotted guests with a lot of happiness and excitement. For the people of Sheopur, the cheetahs were not merely animals, but the very means of ensuring access to better quality of life. Not only would these cheetahs bring fame to their district, but they would also increase tourism, helping improve the overall development of all the nearby areas and creating job opportunities for the youth of Sheopur.

Today, Sheopur is transforming rapidly even as the cheetahs adapt to their new life in Kuno National Park. Roads have been reconstructed, restaurants and hotels are being established, and the entry gates of Kuno National Park have been renovated. Educated youth have been trained as tour guides in the national park, which will provide them with a significant extra income.

The Union Minister of Environment and Forest of India too visited Kuno National Park and reviewed the plans for expanding tourism in Sheopur. He suggested the locals make Sheopur as accessible as possible for tourists since huge crowds of wildlife lovers are expected to come to see cheetahs in their new habitat.

Cheetahs amidst the tall grasses of Kuno (Photo from Madhya Pradesh Tourism)

It has been nearly three months since the arrival of the cheetahs, and now all eight cheetahs have been released into a bigger hunting enclosure from their quarantine pens and have started hunting local herbivores for food. They are scheduled to be released into the open wilds of Kuno around March 2023 where they will be left to their own devices. As soon as they are fully settled into their new home, it is expected that Kuno will be filled with both national and international tourists flocking to meet the newest big cats on the block.

It is quite fascinating to see how a few spotted cats have reinstilled hope to Sheopur,bringing the local communities glory and enhancing their livelihoods through increased tourism. Do visit Kuno to see these special guests as they learn to survive in the wilds of India We all hope that this ‘Project Cheetah’ successfully re-establishes this unique species in India, and also encourages more ecotourism and awareness of the previously deserted and forgotten grasslands of India.

About the Author:

Samarth Jain is currently pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in Zoology. Since childhood, he had a keen interest in wildlife. He looks forward to have a career in future where he can conserve and research about the wonderful creatures inhabiting our earth.

About the Artist:

Rushad Irani is pursuing his Master’s degree in Environmental Studies at ATREE. His interests are in climate change and plants. He is excited about exploring the diverse art forms that digital art has to offer.