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The cheetah belongs to the cat family. Among the fastest land animals, it can clock 120 km per hour. With a light yellow coat, the cheetah has a small head, body, tall legs and a long tail. It has black spots on its skin all through its body. The lower belly is white in colour.

The cheetah looks like a leopard but is a totally different animal. A fully grown cheetah weighs 65 kg, has a 135 cm long body and 84 cm long tail. It preys on deer, horse and rabbit on grasslands. It was once found all over India, from Rajasthan to southern Tamil Nadu.

Today, India has no cheetahs in the wild. In January, a plan was drawn up to introduce and grow the species in Indian forest areas.

Research shows that the cheetah originated in Africa and spread to India. But today it has disappeared from India and other countries too. It is an endangered species in Africa.

The cheetah is a wild mammal that hunts its prey. Once found all over India, the cheetah had disappeared by the time of Indian independence.

Ramanuja Pratap Singh, the king of Surguja in today’s Chhattisgarh, is recorded to have hunted down the last cheetah in India in 1948. There are reports of sightings in Madhya Pradesh forests in 1951. There has been no trace of the cheetah ever since.

The Supreme Court in 2020 endorsed the plan to bring back the cheetah that had been hunted to extinction by zealots. The Asian cheetah that was found here is now found in small numbers in Iran. A type of Cheetah is there in Africa.

The plan is on to introduce the cheetah back into the food chain in Indian forests. Whether this will boost environment conservation will be known only after long-term research

Then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi donated some Asian lions to Iran and tried to procure Asian cheetahs in return but was not successful. Now the plan is to get them from Namibia and introduce them in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh forests.

The kings who ruled in these areas had pet cheetahs. They were like domestic cats. They helped the rajas hunt deer and rabbits in the forest. Mughal kings also had them as pets. There are historical references to Akbar having them.

In Kolhapur, Maharasthra, there are records describing how the wild animal was trained to become part of hunting parties of royals. Kolhapur king Maharaj Rajaram had cheetahs in his hunting parties. A group of people called chittavans were tasked with training the wild cheetah.

Taxidermist Botha Van Ingen recorded in 1936 that there were 35 trained cheetahs in Kolhapur. He has noted that king Rajaram had a dedicated facility to train the cheetahs caught in the wild. The chittekhana, as the place was called, has now become a high school in Kolhapur.

At the time of kings, the cheetah was carried on horse-drawn carts to hunts. As soon as the cheetah saw deer, it would jump out and hunt them down. After the hunt, the chittavans would catch the cheetahs and bring the cheetah under control by creating a rope harness around their neck and belly.

Visiting British officials and members of royal families were entertained by such organized hunts. Binoculars were available so visitors could watch the event from a distance.

The Wildlife Trust of India and the Wildlife Institute of India are collaborating to revive the cheetah that had been hunted down for sport and entertainment. Areas have been identified where the wild cats from African can be let loose. Narudehi and Kuno Palpur sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh as well as Shahgarh sanctuary in Rajasthan will be home to these African cheetahs. A survey was done across central India and Gujarat. The survey considered the food available for the cheetah as well as feedback from people living in the areas.

We don’t know yet when the cheetahs will be released into these areas. But the plan is on to introduce it back into the food chain in Indian forests. Whether this will boost environment conservation will be known only after long-term research.

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