February 25, 2024

Imposing African Cheetahs in the Banni Grasslands

Tapan Mishra

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IMPORTED African cheetahs, which are much in the news for various reasons, are soon to be introduced in the Banni Grasslands Reserve in Kachch district of Gujarat. The union government has decided to establish a cheetah conservation and breeding centre in Banni, for which the state government had prepared a proposal under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA).

This plan, recently announced by the union government, has raised a host of concerns. The importing of cheetahs from southern Africa was itself controversial, with wildlife experts questioning the wisdom of introducing a foreign species into possibly unsuitable habitats. The death of 10 cheetahs including three cubs out of twenty imported in the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh where they had been released seemed to underline these concerns. Fresh anxiety is now being felt as to whether the same mistake was now being repeated in Kachch.

Another major worry is the threats now being posed to the mainly Maldhari pastoralists of Banni and their rights and livelihoods. After the government announcement, the Banni Breeders Association (BAA), a union comprising breeders from all Banni villagers, have embarked on an agitation, fearing that their common grazing lands will gradually be taken out of their control.

A further anxiety relates to threats to the very ecosystem of the Banni grasslands by the introduction of this new apex predator.


On September 17, 2022, on his birthday, prime minister Narendra Modi released a batch of eight cheetahs flown in from Namibia into the Kuno National Park, claiming that the bio-diversity in India will be enriched by this move.  Cheetahs had not been sighted in India over the past 75 years and had therefore been declared extinct in India.

The cheetahs in India were classed as the Asiatic sub-species Acinonyx jubatus venaticus, whereas the sub-species brought from Namibia, and subsequently from South Africa, was Acinonyx jubatus jubatus. Initially, it had been thought that this difference may not matter much, since it was believed that the two sub-species had demarcated from each other only around 5000 years back, an inadequate interval to firmly establish species differentiation. It later came to light that the two sub-species had in fact diverged from each other between 32,000 and 67,000 years ago.

Prior to the import of African cheetahs into India, three sites had been studied including Banni, which was rejected citing its poor prey base. Since then, efforts to rejuvenate the grasslands were made. However, wildlife experts say that the only measures taken were to remove invasive plants and replace them with native grass varieties, but no significant steps were taken to boost prey density.

A renowned wildlife international expert writing in the prestigious journal, Conservation Science and Practice, argues that the African cheetahs were introduced into India without considering their spatial ecology. It is still unclear why so many cheetahs including cubs died in Kuno. Several possible reasons have been conjectured, such as fights between these cheetahs, injuries during hunting or attacks by other animals, diseases, heatstroke and infection from radio collars. Another wildlife expert from a leading agency in India felt that an alien species may be rejected by its new habitat due to isolation, poor pray base and in-breeding etc. There is little doubt that the African cheetahs are extremely isolated in India.

Yet another renowned expert has opined that processes of globalisation in all its different dimensions have unleashed large-scale introduction of alien species into unfamiliar habitats. This puts pressure on natural ecosystems, and highlights the issue of biological nativism. Alien species need thousands of years to establish themselves in a new environment, whereas native species have significantly adapted and interacted with the local ecology. But now, non-native species are becoming increasingly pervasive, raising serious concerns about their negative impacts on biodiversity and on diverse ecosystems. 

Another important area of serious apprehension was raised in a paper published in 2014 about human-cheetah conflict in Namibia from where some of the cheetahs were imported into India. It was found that the food of the cheetahs in Namibia included cattle. This has relevance in India, where human-animal conflict is assuming major dangerous proportions. This study is relevant for India also because man-wildlife conflict is an acute problem in various parts of India. Introducing a new species in grasslands like Banni, the main grazing grounds for cattle reared by the Maldharis and other pastoralists, may now invite fresh conflicts.


Mostly Maldhari cattle-herders and dairy farmers have traditionally used the Banni grasslands as the open grazing ground for their cattle. Banni or ‘Kachchi’ buffalo is a special breed developed long ago by Maldharis.  About 45,000 Maldharis in the roughly 2600 sq.km Banni grasslands region abutting the Rann of Kachch have engaged in animal husbandry for many generations. The Banni Breeders Association says that there are 48 villages in the area with about 1.5 lakh head of cattle of different ages yielding about 1.5 lakh litres of milk daily. The land is not suitable for agriculture as the soil is mostly saline being an extension of the Rann salt marshes. Rainfall is unpredictable, and moisture content of the soil is very low. About 40 different species of grasses grow in this arid grassland with some leguminous  varieties adding proteins for the grazing cattle. The wider Banni region also has a few wetlands with rich flora and fauna.

Banni was used as common property by the Maldharis for hundreds of years. As late as 1955, it was declared a protected forest under the under Section 29 of the Indian Forest Act. In protected forests, grazing rights of forest dwellers are recognised. In 1998, the state government handed over the management of the grasslands to the forest department through a resolution. However, the grasslands have remained poorly managed, leaving the fate of the people of Banni hanging between the district administration and the forest department. Now, due to introduction of cheetahs, the pastoralists fear loss of their ancestral lands, grazing grounds and associated rights.

In 2017 and 2019, the union ministry of tribal affairs had written to the Gujarat tribal development department to award community forest rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) to the Maldharis However, the state government failed to respond adequately. In protest, the local breeders were forced to resume farming illegally. In 2021, the National Green Tribunal ordered the forest department to evict the breeders and remove the crops. This prompted the forest department to plant native grasses on agricultural lands. The introduction of non-native cheetahs has prompted fresh fears among the cattle herders of loss of ancestral land, grazing grounds and forest rights. Their struggle continues, now with new factors brought about without their consent.




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