History of Cheetahs in India
The last three confirmed Indian Cheetahs were shot by the Maharaja (King) of the state of Korwai in 1947. Even though cheetahs survived in hidden pockets after the emperors and monarchs shot the last three known cheetahs, this event is considered the treacherous human intervention in the extinction and decimation of the very special subspecies of Asiatic cheetah population in India. Cheetahs were caught and engaged in large numbers during the Mughal era. Mughal Emperor Akbar is speculated to have owned more than 9000 cheetahs during his lifetime and had only one record of a cheetah bred in captivity, and others were mostly caught from the wild. The scenario was not significantly different during the British Raj where the extensive game-killing traditions played the toll on the dwindling numbers of an isolated number of the cheetah. Not to mention the estimated number of 80,000 tigers killed. The only surviving subspecies to which the Indian Cheetahs belonged now live with a minor population in Iran.
Fig : Asiatic Cheetah; Source : Welcome to Iran
Factors that led to the further decline of the remaining population
The colossal popularity in Indian courts, which allowed the rapid conversion of grasslands to agricultural lands accreted the decline of the cheetah population in the 16th century. The popularity of game hunting during the British Raj and the bounties on cheetah killing just aided the already existing anthropogenic pressure on the number of surviving cheetahs in the 18th and 19th century. For the record, at least 127 cheetahs are known to have been captured and photographed between 1800-1950. Some documents stated a minimum of 70 cheetah kills were rewarded by the colonial administration between 1870 - 1925. The prestige of coursing and rarity of cheetahs were so much that in the 20th century and an estimated number of 200 cheetahs were thought to had been imported from Africa as a substitute.
Interestingly in a study, it was found that there was a closer genetic association between the Asiatic cheetah and Southeast African, rather than Northeast African cheetah. This closer association was most probably due to the founder effect. Incorporating the results of this study, which includes data from historical sequences and multiple modelling approaches, helps resolve cheetah evolutionary history and its implications on current debates of the reintroduction of African cheetah on Indian grasslands.
African Cheetah; Source: EurekAlert
(Re)Introduction of African Cheetah in India
Two fundamental questions arise about this debate of reintroduction. First, whether reintroduction should be given a green signal, provided appropriate sites are identified. Second, which subspecies is more suitable for reintroduction. Even though Iranian cheetahs and Indian cheetah are most closely related genetically, the former's population is not sufficient and robust enough to offset it from the existing small population. Furthermore, it is speculated that the genetic framework of the African cheetah subspecies and Asiatic Cheetah subspecies is not different enough to impact the ability of African cheetah subspecies to survive in Indian grasslands. However, this introduction also needs to consider the ecology and the behaviour of the African subspecies.
The reintroduction of African subspecies in India is a complex one that can be assessed only by trial and error. An experienced geneticist would highly favour this move provided suitable sites have been discovered, as stated earlier. Although there is no genetic reason to preclude the reintroduction, there is consideration like local environment and ecology, animal behaviour, anthropogenic pressures, the likelihood of success and probable impact of the African subspecies of the cheetah on the already endangered species in the prospective sites of reintroduction needs to be taken into account.
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Rai, N., Verma, S., Gaur, A., Iliescu, F., Thakur, M., Golla, T., Chandra, K., Prakash, S., Tabasum, W., Ara, S., Singh, L., Thangaraj, K. and Jacobs, G., 2020. Ancient mtDNA from the extinct Indian cheetah supports unexpectedly deep divergence from African cheetahs. Scientific Reports, 10(1).