Big cat politics: a look at the legal battle for the relocation of cheetahs in India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday released eight cheetahs brought from Namibia into Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh. The relocation of the cheetah to India was the largest wild animal transfer project in history.

The relocation of the big cat to India, 70 years after its extinction, was a celebrated event, with Prime Minister Modi calling it “historic”.

However, the much-celebrated event also became a reason for the BJP and Congress to enter a contest over the project’s credit. Congressman Jairam Ramesh took to Twitter to claim credit for the relocation of the big cats and said the ‘Project Cheetah’ proposal was prepared by the Manmohan Singh-led government in 2008-09.

This was followed by BJP IT cell chief Amit Malviya who hit out at Ramesh, saying the statement made by the UPA government’s proposal ‘in the original avatar was seen as totally wrong’ and upheld by the Supreme Court.

READ ALSO | Cheetahs back on Indian soil after 70 years, PM Modi calls it historic | Main developments

Let’s take a look at the long history of the case and the controversy:

2010: CHEETAH RELOCATION PROPOSAL

In 2010, the then UPA government offered to import African cheetahs to India. The proposal then wanted to introduce them to different wildlife sanctuaries in areas where they were historically found before the species became extinct due to habitat loss, hunting and human-wildlife conflict.

The proposal was challenged in the Supreme Court in 2012, as the court had been overseeing the government’s wildlife conservation efforts in a public interest litigation filed by the Center for the Environment Law since 1995.

In 2012, the amicus curiae in the case – the person who assists the court by providing information or advice – filed a petition challenging the government’s proposal to import cheetahs from Namibia and relocate them to Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary. in Madhya Pradesh.

The court was told that the Kuno-Palpur Sanctuary had been identified in 1993 as the relocation site for the endangered Asiatic lions from the Gir Sanctuary in Gujarat.

The then amicus, PS lead counsel Narasimha, pointed out that the decision by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to “introduce Namibia’s African cheetahs into the same proposed habitat chosen for reintroduction Gir lions has also not been placed before the Standing Committee of the National Wildlife Council (NBWL), and no considered decision has been made in this regard. Only feasibility studies have been undertaken.

READ ALSO | No greater gift: Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Chouhan as Cheetahs arrive on PM Modi’s birthday

The court specifically asked the government whether a decision had been made by the National Wildlife Board (NBWL) regarding the introduction of African cheetahs from Namibia.

2012: CHEETAH SUPREME COURT STAY PROJECT

The bench of Judges KS Radhakrishnan and Judge Chandramauli Kumar Prasad granted a stay on the project on May 8, 2012. This came after the joint director of the Ministry of Environment and Forests informed the bench that the proposal had been submitted to the Council, but “no decision has been taken by the NBWL”.

“We are therefore compelled to suspend the decision of the Ministry of Environment to import cheetahs from Namibia to India until we take a final decision on the issue of the reintroduction of lions into the Kuno Sanctuary, a project which has been unfolding for two decades. . We order the ministry to produce in court relevant documents and rulings, if any, regarding the studies undertaken and deliberations made by the NBWL in this regard,” the bench ordered.

A year later, on April 15, 2013, the Supreme Court issued a judgment reversing the decision of the Ministry of Forestry to import cheetahs into India.

“A detailed scientific study must be done before introducing a foreign species to India, which was not done in this case. NBWL, which is a statutory board established for this purpose under the Wildlife Protection Act, was also not consulted,” the bench said when announcing its decision.

READ ALSO | Cheetahs once roared in India’s pink city of Jaipur: read on

“At this stage, in our opinion, the decision taken by the ministry to first introduce the African cheetahs to Kuno, and then the Asiatic lion, is arbitrary and illegal. It is a flagrant violation of the legal requirements laid down by the Wildlife Protection Act. The ministry’s order to introduce African cheetahs to Kuno cannot withstand the law and it is rescinded,” the bench said.

This same verdict also ordered the Ministry and Government of Gujarat to initiate the process of relocating lions from Gujarat’s Gir Sanctuary to Kuno.

The cheetah case remained in cold storage for several years, while the issue of relocating the lions was challenged by the Gujarat government, which started a separate legal and political battle.

It wasn’t until 2017 that the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) filed a petition in the Supreme Court to review the 2013 ruling banning the movement of cheetahs.

2017: ADVOCACY BEFORE SC TO REVIEW ITS DECISION

The NTCA, through its attorney, Senior Counsel Proshanto Sen, argued that the feasibility study and consultation with the National Wildlife Council (NBWL), which is mandatory under the Wildlife Act wildlife protection, had been carried out.

The request also said the NBWL considered the proposal in September 2012, months before the 2013 verdict.

The app, accessed by India Today, includes a technical report prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India and the Wildlife Trust of India in 2010, where an assessment of 10 sites in five states was conducted, including habitat analysis and viability.

READ ALSO | Congress takes credit for “Project Cheetah”, according to the proposal approved by the party in 2008-2009

It further included a copy of the minutes of the meeting of the National Wildlife Council, held on September 5, 2012, during which the council reviewed the Cheetah Project. It also includes details and terms of reference for the task force set up in 2012 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to review the Indian government’s plan.

“A detailed scientific study and analysis of not only Kuno, but also other potential areas where cheetahs could be reintroduced, has been carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India and the Wildlife Trust of India within the historic range of the cheetah in India,” the NTCA app said.

Attorney Sen also argued in court that the return of the cheetahs “would have very special significance for the national conservation ethic” and “would also draw attention to the conservation of our neglected grasslands and open forests.” “.

In 2018, the NTCA informed the court that the necessary IUCN approvals to transfer cheetahs from Namibia had been taken and that the international conservation body had reviewed the proposed project.

2020: THE SUPREME COURT AUTHORIZES THE CHEETAH PROJECT ON TRIAL

It was finally in January 2020 that the Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India, SA Bobde, amended the order passed in 2013 and allowed the Indian government to start the project as a test.

“It is suggested that African cheetahs should be experimentally introduced into a carefully selected habitat and fed and monitored to see if they can adapt to Indian conditions. informed that the location should be changed to another more habitable forest for the animals,” the bench noted in its January 2020 order.

However, the court observed that the project would not be left solely in the hands of the NTCA. The court ordered that a three-member expert panel be created to oversee the project.

The court named MK Ranjit Sinh, former Director of Wildlife Conservation in India, as well as Dhananjai Mohan, Chief Conservator of Forests, Wildlife Protection and Intelligence, and the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change DIG (Wildlife), as an expert group.

The bench also ordered that the committee oversee the entire process and file a detailed report in court every four months. Court records, however, do not indicate that any reports were filed.

NO HEARING AFTER 2020

The case has not been brought to the Supreme Court since February 2020.

India Today spoke to the amicus curiae in the case, lead lawyer ADN Rao, who said he was “unaware” of the submission of reports and declined to comment further.

Lawyer Proshanto Sen also told India Today that feasibility studies carried out before 2013 were submitted to the court, but added that studies were also carried out after the 2013 verdict.

“Detailed studies were carried out after the 2013 verdict. But I don’t recall a report as such being filed in court. At that time, the priority was the relocation of Asiatic lions to Kuno and the protection of endangered species in India,” Sen said.

The country attended the Cheetahs’ release ceremony in Kuno on Saturday. However, the studies on the viability of the cheetah project and the protection steps are still awaited by the highest court in the country.

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