Posts Tagged ‘Indian cheetah’


India’s supreme court is now seeing an interesting case in which taxonomy and endangered species politics converge to have real world consequences. The question is whether African cheetahs can replace Asiatic cheetahs on India’s plains.

Yes, for there were once cheetahs in India. Their traditional quarry was the blackbuck antelope, and many nobles in India kept cheetahs or “hunting leopards,” as the British colonizers called them, for coursing blackbuck.

Cheetahs were not just found in India.  They ranged throughout the Middle East up into the Caucasus and Central Asia. In the wild, this lineage of cheetah is found only in Iran, where they exist in only relict numbers.  In Iran, the situation is made even more complicated with an international human rights scandal in which several cheetah researchers were imprisoned.  Cheetahs have since been extirpated from all of Asia, except for that tiny Iranian population.

So India, a nation with growing wealth and a growing conservation ethic, cannot turn to Iran to reintroduce its former cheetahs.  With Iran out of the question, some experts have suggested that African cheetahs be used as stand-ins.

And this is where things get interesting. African cheetahs are not exactly like the ones in India. There is a bit of a debate about when the two lineages of cheetah split, with one set of papers and researchers suggesting a very recent split (5,000 years ago) and another suggesting a more ancient one (44,000-47,000 years ago).

40,000 years suggests way too much evolutionary distance between the two cheetah populations for African cheetahs to be equivalent of the Asiatic ones.

But even if we accept this later date, it is still not that much of a divergence. Currently, most experts recognize only a single species of red fox, but Old World and North American red foxes diverged 400,000 years ago.

African cheetahs have evolved to hunt on open plains. Various small antelopes comprise the majority of their diet. They are not ecologically that different from cheetahs that lived on the plains of India.

So they aren’t that genetically distinct from each other, and they aren’t ecologically that different either.

It would make sense to bring African cheetahs to India. Of course, the legal system and the interpretation of statutes often goes against sound conservation policy.

But if cheetahs are ever to return to India, the question is now in the hands of India’s supreme court.

I hope they decide that those from Africa can stand in. They are far from exact, but they are far from ersatz.


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Plans to introduce African cheetahs to India have been scrapped.

India’s Supreme Court has just ruled that African cheetahs are too genetically different Asiatic cheetahs to be introduced.

From the BBC:

India’s Supreme Court has directed the government to suspend a move to reintroduce the cheetah, eradicated in India by hunting nearly a century ago.

The court’s decision came after some experts described the plan as “totally misconceived”.

Earlier, the government had approved wildlife groups’ recommendations of two sanctuaries, in Madhya Pradesh and an area in Rajasthan, as potential homes.

The plan was to import the cats from Africa, reports say.

A senior lawyer, PS Narasimha, told the court that the proposal to reintroduce the cheetah had not been discussed with the National Board for Wildlife, a statutory body for the enforcement of wildlife laws in India.

“Scientific studies show that the African cheetahs and Asian cheetahs are completely different, both genetically and also in their characteristics,” he said.

Mr Narasimha told the court that the reintroduction of the cheetah went against the guidelines on translocation of wildlife species laid down by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The Asiatic cheetah vanished from India many decades ago, pursued by trophy hunters and herdsmen to the brink of extinction during the Raj.

Conservationists say fewer than 100 of the critically endangered subspecies remain in Iran, roaming the central deserts.

The vast majority of the 10,000 cheetahs left in the world are in Africa.

Critics of the reintroduction scheme in India say that without restoring habitat and prey-bases, and also reducing the chances of man-animal conflict, viable cheetah populations will not flourish.

I agree with the argument that prey must be restored in order to maintain cheetahs and reduce human conflicts.

I do not agree that there is a lot of genetic difference between Asiatic and African cheetah.

There is very little genetic variation in cheetahs at all.

The best genetic evidence shows that Asiatic and African cheetahs aren’t even subspecies.

Stephen O’Brien of Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Cancer Institute contends that the genetic evidence shows that African and Asiatic cheetahs separated only 5,000 years ago.  A 100,000 years of evolution separates the African and Asiatic subspecies of lion, and 169,000 years separates the African and Asian subspecies of leopard. O’Brien, you may recall, was the researcher who lead the study that figured out that there were two species of clouded leopard. He also one of the leading authorities in conservation genetics and using DNA to resolve taxonomic disputes.

But the Indian Supreme Court was not convinced by this genetic evidence.

If cheetahs are to be reintroduced, they must be of the Asiatic “subspecies.”

The problem with that is they are in Iran.

And there are only about 100 of them.

Iran might be persuaded to send some to India, but it would not be prudent.

The proposed Indian cheetah population would need a relatively large number of founders, and taking founders from that very small population would be very harmful to the long-term survival of cheetahs in Iran.

This ruling shows us that these debates about taxonomy are not trivial.

Science may accept nuance and muddling between what we call a species or a subspecies.

The law very often doesn’t.

I’d love to see what the language of India’s version of the ESA states.

The language may be worded in such a way that reintroductions cannot vary much from the original population.

This might make some sense, if you know India’s history with reintroductions.

In the late 70’s, an Indian conservationist named Billy Arjan Singh, who had become famous for rehabilitating leopards and releasing them into the wild, tried his luck with a tigress named Tara. Tara had been born at the Twycross Zoo in India, and Singh raised her to maturity and successfully introduced her into the wilds of Dudhwa National Park.

She was said to have been a Bengal tiger, but like many captive tigers, her pedigree was not known. Amur and Bengal tigers are the main source for captive tigers, and they have often been historically crossbred at menageries and circuses.

Tigers with distinct Amur (“Siberian”) tiger characteristics were discovered.  Their DNA was most similar to Amur tigers.

In India’s parliament there was a great outcry against these cats, and Tara was blamed for introducing Amur tiger genes into this population.

It’s very likely that India’s conservation laws are now so strict to prevent another “pollution” of genes from another “subspecies” that they never will allow cheetahs to return to the country.

It’s really a shame.

But it shows that debates over taxonomy are not meaningless hairsplitting.

The have very real consequences for conservation.


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I have embedded this video before, but I have not provided a good analysis of it.

These cheetahs were captured as adults and then socialized to people– something that is almost impossible to do with feral cats!

And then they are trained to attack the adult male blackbuck, which is the exact opposite of which animals a cheetah would target in the wild. Cheetahs are fast, but unlike leopards and pantherine cats, they don’t have as much brute strength that can be used to pull a large animal down. Instead, cheetahs often try to use one of the forepaws to trip the prey when they advance close enough to it. If the animal is tripped, the cheetah has a chance of running fast enough to get to its neck before it has chance to get up.

When you see these cheetahs grab adult male blackbuck, it is going against what it normally would do, for it is obvious that a cheetah has a very hard time bringing down such powerful prey.  Their canine teeth aren’t as large as those of other cats, so  it takes them several minutes to kill their prey. If the prey is big and healthy, it could easily injure the cheetah as it is making its killing bite.

The cheetahs have to have a certain amount of trust that their handlers will advance upon the downed blackbuck and kill it. Otherwise, it would be very likely that the downed blackbuck could injure the cheetah in its death throes.

The cheetahs are rewarded with food. They are given a ladle of blood if they are needed for more coursing, but if their day is over, they are given a portion of the kill. One does not see any compulsory training or harsh handling of the cheetahs in this film. The animals appear to be bonded to their handlers, and they are working cooperatively.

And this does have some basis in the natural world.

Male cheetahs often band together to take larger prey than they would be able to kill as individuals. The females hunt on their own, which sounds pretty weird. A female cheetah with young would have a greater need for lots of fresh meat that could more easily be procured through cooperative hunting, but they simply don’t do it.

So cheetahs do have some amount of cooperative hunting as part of their natural repertoire of behaviors, which is why they could be used as coursing animals.

But then question becomes “Why weren’t cheetahs domesticated?”

They have all the traits that would make a good domestic animal. They are readily tamed and made docile– so docile that they allow hunters to put hoods over their heads while they are holding their prey in their jaws.

But no cheetah courser ever bred enough cheetahs in captivity to maintain a population large enough for any kind of selective breeding. Cheetahs are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, and modern zoos were not able to produce a live cheetah birth until 1960. People have been trying to breed coursing cheetahs since time of the Ancient Assyrians and Egyptians, and although they might have produced a cub here and there- they were largely unsuccessful in their endeavors.

The Indian nobles were never able to breed cheetahs, even when they devoted great resources to the project. One noble kept a thousand cheetahs, and he tried virtually every technique he could imagine to produce cubs. He failed miserably.

This inability to reproduce has traditionally been blamed upon the fact that cheetahs are quite inbred. It is estimated that their worldwide population was reduced to 7 individuals 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, which is bad enough, and in the past 150 years, cheetahs have experienced a massive population collapse. Their entire Asian range has been reduced to some isolated pockets in Iran, and their range in Africa has been greatly fragmented. So they were already quite inbred from natural causes, and it has been made worse through hunting and habitat destruction.

Male cheetahs do have low sperm counts. More than 75 percent of male cheetah sperm is malformed, but this doesn’t stop cheetahs in the wild from reproducing. It turns out that the reason why cheetahs have such a hard time reproducing is that they have an elaborate courtship ritual. Male cheetahs, which band together as previously mentioned, chase the female when she is estrus. They chase her for several days, and this activity stimulates her into ovulation. In captivity, male cheetahs were never really given this opportunity, and most would-be cheetah domesticators wouldn’t have the space or the understanding to get this mating ritual correct.

And if one has to allow cheetahs their courtship chase, it soon becomes obvious.

If you can breed coursing dogs in the basement, why would you ever breed cheetahs?

The coursing dog might not be as fast as the cheetah, but it’s pretty darn close to the cheetah in its conformation and utility. And it is very easy to breed.  It requires almost no knowledge to get them to breed. Just make sure you have a male and a female.

And if they are easy to breed, then you can produce lots of offspring from which one can selectively breed.

Cheetahs don’t have that utility.

As much as I enjoy watching this cheetah coursing clip and thinking of what might have happened had we had some better understanding of cheetah reproduction, I know that the cheetah simply was not going to become a domestic animal. I don’t know how this species would have withstood all the intense selection that is necessary for domestication.  Although these animals are readily tamed, there would always be a desire to breed a cheetah that was even tamer, and with an animal with such finite genetic diversity, it is unlikely that captive strains would have been viable in the long term.

It’s just one of those animals that appears to have been the ideal hunting partner, but its natural history precluded it from ever reaching this status.


I am unfamiliar with the dietary strictures for Muslims regarding the animals that cheetahs catch, but I have come across the strictures for those that a dog catches. Are these rules the same for cheetahs?

I’m just curious, for it might explain why cheetahs were preferred over dogs in some cultures.


This video says “India,” but at the time, India was a British possession that included the country we call India today and the countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh. This footage could have easily been taken in what is now Pakistan, and considering the religion of the hunters, it probably was.


Oh. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it:

Cheetahs are returning to India!

They aren’t going to be used to course blackbuck.

They might be coursing blackbuck, but they will be doing it on their own as native Indian wildlife.

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That cat is an Indian leopard, even though the caption clearly says “Chetah [sic] for Hunting–India.”

I hope they didn’t try to use that leopard to hunt blackbuck or deer.

Leopards are ambush predators. They rely upon camouflage and their strength to bring down much larger prey than themselves.

I doubt that a leopard would have been any use at hunting these animals in the same fashion as the trained hunting cheetahs.

And if a leopard caught one, leopards are much more protective of their kills than cheetahs are. I’d hate to have to fight one off a kill.

Leopards have another important disadvantage. They are among the few animals that normally consider people to be a prey source. As far as I know, cheetahs really don’t hunt people or attack them unless threatened.

Leopards think we taste pretty good.

But we’re not nearly as tasty as our dogs are.



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