Exterminated in India

Last three Asiatic cheetahs killed in Surguja district of MP in Central India. The Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo who reportedly shot them standing (Reported in the Journal of BNHS)
Last three Asiatic cheetahs killed in Surguja district of MP in Central India. The Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo who reportedly shot them standing (Reported in the Journal of BNHS)

Cheetahs have been known to exist in India for a very long time, but as a result of hunting and other causes, they have been extinct in India since the 1940s.

The Mughal Emperor of India, Akbar also known as ‘Akbar the Great’ (full name – Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar), was said to have acquired a whopping 9,000 cheetahs for his menagerie during his 49-year reign. Akbar’s fascination for cheetahs has been depicted in many Persian and Indian miniature paintings.

Emperor Jahangir : A Naturalist

Akbar’s son Emperor Jahangir ( full name: Salim Nuruddin Jahangir) (full title: Al-Sultan al-‘Azam wal Khaqan al-Mukarram, Khushru-i-Giti Panah, Abu’l-Fath Nur-ud-din Muhammad Jahangir Padshah Ghazi [Jannat-Makaani]) (birth 20 September 1569; death 8 November 1627) was an enigmatic person deserving the highest attention of any Naturalist. He used to observe nature with such an astonishing accuracy that one would ascribe his observation to a scientific investigator of a later date. His memoirs, Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, are replete with descriptions of hunts, animal behaviour, plants, and fruits and even of a comet and a meteorite. He went to the extent of having some of his trophies weighed, measured and recorded, and in some cases, had them even dissected in his presence to satisfy his ever curious mind.

In the eighth year of his reign (1613 A.D), Jahangir records the following event:

“It is an established fact that cheetahs in unaccustomed places do not pair off with a female, for my revered father (Emperor Akbar) once collected together 1000 cheetahs. He was very desirous that they should pair, but this in no way came off. He had many times coupled male and female cheetahs together in gardens, but there, too, it did not come off. At this time a male cheetah, having slipped its collar, went to a female and paired with it, and after two and a half months three young ones were born and grew up” (Rogers and Beveridge, p 240, Vol. I, 1909).  Maasir-i-Jahangiri records this event as well, and it contains exactly the same information (Alavi, p. 169, 1978).

There are certain unique aspects of the event recorded in it which have been overlooked :-

Firstly, this is the only record in history of trained cheetahs breeding. That these were Indian cheetahs makes it truly unique. Secondly, this is the only known instance of cheetahs breeding in captivity anywhere until the second half of 20th century. Philadelphia Zoo, USA bred African cheetahs in 1956 (Eaton, p.33, 1974) thus, becoming the first to do so in captivity in our time. The period of gestation according to Jahangir was 75 days plus, for he records that the birth of 3 cubs took place “after two and a half months”. No record is available of the breeding habits of the Indian cheetahs in the wild (Prater, p. 81, 1948) while this is the only recorded instance in captivity. Information is available however, on the African cheetahs. In twelve instances observed between 1964 and 1968, the period of gestation varied between 86 and 95 days (Eaton, p.30, 1974). Twenty instances of births were recorded among African cheetahs in captivity between 1956 and 1971. Of these, in 14 cases only a single cub was born, in 6 cases the litter was of 2 cubs each and in 6 cases the litter was of 3 cubs each (Eaton, p.33, 1974). Thirdly, it is important to note that these cheetahs mated, conceived and produced cubs in captivity without any artificial interference, inducement or assistance. In fact, imperial attempts to induce breeding among cheetahs failed during the time of Emperor Akbar as a passage records. Finally, it is noteworthy that the cubs survived and grew up.

Actually, the rarity of this event was not lost on the ever so keenly observant Emperor though he did not have the benefit of our knowledge. He concludes this passage with the statement: “This has been recorded because it appeared strange” (Rogers and Beveridge, p 240, Vol. I, 1909) (Journal of BNHS – Vol.84, No.2, August 1987)

Extinction in India

Emperor Akbar Hunting with Cheetahs
Emperor Akbar Hunting with Cheetahs

By the advent of 20th century, species was already heading for extinction in many regions. The last physical evidence of the Asiatic Cheetah in India was three brothers shot by the Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya of Surguja in 1947 in today’s Chattisgarh (formerly state of Madhya Pradesh). The Maharajah was infamous for shooting around 1,150 tigers (1,710 according to some sources) in his lifetime.

In 1952, cheetah was officially declared extinct from India — the only large mammal till date (2016) to have gone extinct from the ‘plains’ of India; however, there were some unconfirmed reports of its sightings from various parts of the country. When cheetah was there in India till the first half of the 20th century, prey was abundant, and it fed on Chinkaras, Blackbucks and sometimes the Chital (also known as spotted deer or axis deer) and the Nilgai, an antelope.

Cheetah absent from most narratives

The Indian cheetah has always been an mystery of sorts. While the British wrote volumes on the more well-known big cats of India, the cheetah remained conspicuously absent from most narratives.

There are many reasons for this. First of all, during the days of the Raj, there was a great deal of uncertainty and confusion regarding the nomenclature of leopards and cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus). Edward B Baker, author of Sport in Bengal: How, when and where to seek it (1886), suggested that the word “leopard” should be applied to the “cheetah” while what is generally called a “leopard” should only be called a “panther”.

A Mervyn Smith, in his book, Sport and Adventure in the Indian Jungle (1904), described the difference between the two thus: “The skin is differently marked to that of the panther. Both have a yellowish brown ground with black spots. The spots on the panther are rosettes; on the cheetah they are simply black dabs without a central opening of yellow… The cheetah, or hunting-leopard, in no way resembles the ordinary leopard or panther. The latter has retractile claws like the cat, while the cheetah’s paws are like those of the dog. Most shikarees are agreed that he belongs to the hyena family, and is to that animal what the greyhound is to the foxhound.”

Another reason for the absence of cheetahs from most colonial hunting accounts is the fact this cat was rarely, if ever, considered a “worthy trophy” by big-game hunters. All hunters preferred much fiercer “big” game over the lissome cheetah. Moreover, by the time the “age of white hunters” dawned in India, the cheetahs were already on their way out, surviving in very low densities across their range, which then extended from Coimbatore to Central Provinces, and Balochistan to Orissa.

But it hadn’t always been this way. There was a time when this Asian cousin of the much better-known African cheetah ranged across multiple nations, right from Syria to Saranda (Jharkhand) and the Central Asian highlands to the Deccan Plateau. India used to be the stronghold of Asiatic cheetah, up till the late Mughal period. The name Asiatic cheetah, in fact, gained currency only after the species’ extinction from India, before which Indian cheetah was the common name for the sub-species. Mughal emperor Akbar was said to have acquired a whopping 9,000 cheetahs for his menagerie during his 49-year reign. The “sport” of “coursing with cheetahs”, wherein cheetahs with their propensity to being easily tamed, were caught from the wild and used to chase down and hunt (usually blackbucks) in grasslands and open fields, was a popular royal indulgence, widely prevalent in Mughal times, and, later, among many princely states in India during the colonial era (thus earning the animal the moniker “hunting leopards”).

However, since cheetahs were, and still are, notorious for their infertility in captivity, the royal menageries had to be constantly restocked with animals trapped from the wild, so much so that it led to the emergence of an entire sub-tribe called cheetahwaala Pardhis — from within the larger peninsular tribe of Pardhis (the nomadic community famed as expert trappers and hunters of wild game). The colonial policy of exterminating “vermins” with monetary rewards on offer extended to the already imperiled cheetah as well. Moreover, the high infant mortality rate among wild cheetahs (recent research from Africa has established that many females may never even be able to raise a single litter successfully in a lifetime and a few “supermoms” will be critical to adding to the population) meant that post a threshold decline in the overall population, recovery would become extremely difficult. Finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, habitat transformation — open grasslands and scrublands, the cheetah’s preferred habitat — sealed the fate of the species.

The last relict cheetah populations were eventually pushed to the remotest regions of India, including Surguja, western Jharkhand, and along the Orissa-Andhra border. One of the last records of a “hunting leopard” comes from Talcher, a subdivision of Angul district in central Orissa, where a cheetah was shot in 1932 by Sir Arthur Cunningham Lothian, an experienced political officer, who would later become the chief commissioner of Ajmer-Merwara province. He wrote in his book, Kingdoms of Yesterday (1951): “In Talcher, one day, when out for a Tiger, I fired at an animal moving through the jungle, and found, to my great regret, that I had shot a specimen of that very rare animal, the Indian cheetah.”

Lydekker quoted Blanford writing on the Asiatic Cheetah in India before it became extinct : –

…is in low, isolated, rocky hills, near the plains on which live antelopes, its principal prey. It also kills gazelles, nilgai, and, doubtless, occasionally deer and other animals. Instances also occur of sheep and goats being carried off by it, but it rarely molests domestic animals, and has not been known to attack men. Its mode of capturing its prey is to stalk up to within a moderate distance of between one to two hundred yards, taking advantage of inequalities of the ground, bushes, or other cover, and then to make a rush. Its speed for a short distance is remarkable far exceeding that of any other beast of prey, even of a greyhound or kangaroo-hound, for no dog can at first overtake an Indian antelope or a gazelle, either of which is quickly run down by C. jubatus, if the start does not exceed about two hundred yards. General McMaster saw a very fine hunting-leopard catch a black buck that had about that start within four hundred yards. It is probable that for a short distance the hunting-leopard is the swiftest of all mammals.

Reintroduction project turned down by Supreme Court

A captive propagation project was proposed for India. The then Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh told the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of the Parliament) on 7 July 2009, “The cheetah is the only animal that has been described extinct in India in the last 100 years. We have to get them from abroad to repopulate the species.” He was responding to a call attention motion from a member. “The plan to bring back the cheetah, which fell to indiscriminate hunting and complex factors like a fragile breeding pattern is audacious given the problems besetting tiger conservation.” Two naturalists, Divya Bhanusinh and MK Ranjit Singh, had suggested importing these animals from Africa, after which they will be bred in captivity and, in time, released in the wild. Perhaps both these naturalists’ line of reasoning was based on the findings of Stephen J. O’Brien from the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity of the National Cancer Institute, USA.

O’Brien who attended a Cheetah reintroduction workshop organized in India on 9 September 2009, said, according to the newest modern genetic studies, which became possible only now, it has been found that, in fact, the Asiatic cheetah was genetically identical to the African subspecies from which it separated only about 5,000 years ago, which was not enough time for a subspecies level differentiation.

He has in the past conducted numerous prestigious genetic studies including those on Asiatic lions. His claim was the case of Asian and African lion subspecies is different from cheetahs as they had separated some 100,000 years ago, and the African and Asian leopard subspecies 169,000 years ago. In the light of the above claim cheetah expert Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) and other experts present in the workshop advised the Indian Government that it should source cheetahs from Africa where they were much more numerous rather than Iran where the population is already in a critical stage, for the purpose of reintroduction into the country.

In the year 2011, a much more exhaustive five-year genetic study involving the DNA samples from the wild, museums and zoos of eight countries was published in Molecular Ecology (Journal) on 8 January 2011. It concluded, in fact, both the subspecies of cheetahs – African and Asiatic – were genetically very distinct and had, separated 32,000 to 67,000 years ago and the subspecies level differentiation had taken place due to longer separation from the African population. In light of this genetic evidence, India’s Supreme Court suspended attempts to introduce African cheetahs as part of a cheetah reintroduction program.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *