In 2012, as the court was hearing a case about the protection of India’s native lions, it learned about a government plan to bring African cheetahs into India. Ravi Chellam, the former director of the Wildlife Conservation Society of India and an expert witness in the case, argued that India should spend its limited conservation resources to improve the management of the species it currently has. “Should we be investing to conserve African species right now?” he asked. “Is that really a priority for us?”
The court agreed, ruling in 2013 that African cheetahs were a “foreign species … which never existed in India” and could not be legally introduced to the country. But now, because of a request from the Indian government, the Supreme Court is reexamining that injunction, and the cheetah has a new chance to return.
Read: Cheetahs never prosper
The government first failed to reintroduce cheetahs in the 1970s, when it considered a swap of Asiatic cats between India and Iran. Today, a critically endangered population of roughly 40 Asiatic cheetahs survives in Iran, but four decades ago, hundreds lived there. India, for its part, had several hundred Asiatic lions, which Iran wanted to reintroduce.
Before the trade could happen, though, India needed to develop a prey base for the cheetah. As the country’s grasslands were repurposed for agriculture, both the cheetah and its prey were pushed into suboptimal habitats, where they struggled to survive. Conservationists, including M. K. Ranjitsinh, India’s first director of wildlife preservation, saw this trade as the best chance to preserve not just the country’s cheetah legacy, but also the land where the cats once thrived. “In India, symbols are very important. In the name of the tiger, we saved something more valuable than the tiger: We saved the habitat of the tiger,” Ranjitsinh told me. “By that same token, I was hoping the cheetah could save our most productive ecosystems, the grasslands.”
Conservationists began work to increase populations of prey such as the blackbuck (Indian antelope) and the chikara (Indian gazelle). But talks with Iran fell apart after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
The idea of reinvigorating India’s Asiatic-cheetah population had a second life, though. Twenty-two years later, in 2001, Lalji Singh, the “father of DNA fingerprinting in India,” came to Iran with a new proposition: Let his lab collect sperm and tissue samples from Asiatic cheetahs, in order to clone one. He planned to use an Indian leopard as a surrogate mother for the newly cloned cheetah cub. Iran rejected the approach, and the idea fizzled out.
With the Asiatic cheetah off the table, conservationists considered a new approach: introduce an African subspecies into India. Ranjitsinh and other experts believed that African cheetahs could sub in for the Asiatic as the top predator of the grassland’s food chain. In 2009, they organized an international conference in Rajasthan to discuss the idea with other influential conservationists. For that group, the prospect of redeveloping cheetah habitats in India was exciting; the species as a whole has lost approximately 90 percent of its former range and is classified as vulnerable.