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Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Cheetah .. .. .. to be back in India ... the popular matchbox at home !!

In Tamil comedy film ‘Kalakalappu’, directed by Sundar C ~ Santhanam will show a portrait of a man attacking a cheetah with sickle. Vimal would remark having seen it elsewhere… Santhanam retorts saying that it was his grandfather attacking the tiger – the photo which they later gave to matchbox manufacturer….. to Vimal’s remark that it does not sound believable – Santhanam would say that his grandfather told him that food would be provided only if he believes and would ask Vimal whether he would like to dine or not  !!!  Wimco Limited is a reputed manufacturer and exporter of Cardboard matches, Veneer Matches, Safety Matches, Match Box, Wax Matches and the more… you would know them better by this single product ‘Cheetah fight matchboxes’…..

Cheetah is a marvel ~ the fastest land animal.  Its  slender, long-legged body is built for speed. Cheetahs are tan in color with black spots all over their bodies. They can also be distinguished from other big cats by their smaller size, spotted coats, small heads and ears and distinctive "tear stripes" that stretch from the corner of the eye to the side of the nose. They eat mainly gazelles, wildebeest calves, impalas and smaller hoofed animals. When cheetahs are running, they use their tails to help them steer and turn in the direction they want to go, like the rudder of a boat.

In 1900, there were over 100,000 cheetahs across their historic range. Today, an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 cheetahs remain in the wild in Africa. One would be surprised to know that they were found throughout India right from the southern part of the Nation.  Found mostly in open and partially open savannah, cheetahs rely on tall grasses for camouflage when hunting.  Surprised to read that they cannot roar !! – typically they are loners.

Their lifespan in the wild is reportedly 10-12 years only.  As it is happening to many, the sleek, speedy cheetah is rapidly heading towards extinction according to a new study into declining numbers.  Fresh reports suggest that  there are just 7,100 of the world's fastest mammals now left in the wild. They are in trouble mainly because they range far beyond protected areas and are coming increasingly into conflict with humans. According to a study, more than half the world's surviving cheetahs live in one population that ranges across six countries in southern Africa. Cheetahs in Asia have been essentially wiped out. A group estimated to number fewer than 50 individuals clings on in Iran. Because the cheetah is one of the widest-ranging carnivores, it roams across lands far outside protected areas. As a result, the animal struggles because these lands are increasingly being developed by farmers and the cheetah's prey is declining because of bushmeat hunting.

In Zimbabwe, the cheetah population has fallen from around 1,200 to just 170 animals in 16 years, with the main cause being major changes in land tenure. The illegal trade in cheetah cubs has been driven by their status as a fashion icon in the Gulf states. Researchers involved with the study say that the threats facing the fabled predator have gone unnoticed for far too long. The young cats can fetch up to $10,000 on the black market. According to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, some 1,200 cheetah cubs are known to have been trafficked out of Africa over the past 10 years but around 85% of them died during the journey.

                                         It is stated that till last century, the Asiatic cheetah was quite common and roamed all the way from Israel, the Arabian Peninsula to Iran, Afghanistan and India. In India, they ranged as far south as the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. The Asiatic cheetah, also known as the "hunting leopard" in India was kept by kings and princes to hunt gazelle; the Moghul emperor Akbar kept them for hunting gazelle and blackbucks.  .. .. blackbucks have been hunted for long !! is also the message.

Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park will get African Cheetahs as part of India’s first inter-country big cat relocation project, a senior state forest department official said after the MP government received a confirmation from the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change. Five male cheetahs and three females will be donated by Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) of South Africa, said Alok Kumar, principal chief conservator of forest (Wildlife).

Cheetah, the world's fastest land animal which was declared extinct in India in 1952, is expected to be re-introduced into the country in November this year at the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, state Forest Minister Vijay Shah. The country's last spotted cheetah died in Chhattisgarh in 1947 and it was declared extinct in the country in 1952. The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) some years back prepared a cheetah re-introduction project. The Supreme Court had earlier given its approval to introduce African cheetahs to a suitable habitat in India on an experimental basis. "We have started the process of creating an enclosure for around 10 cheetahs, including five females, to be brought from South Africa to Kuno in Sheopur district and it is going to be completed by August," Shah told PTI.  Officials from India will be sent to South Africa for sensitisation and training in June and July this year and according to the plan, the transportation of the cheetahs will take place in October and November, he said.

Kuno, located in the Chambal region, is spread over an area of over 750 sq km and has a conducive environment for the cheetah, he said.  The protected area, comprising a considerable population of four-horned antelopes, chinkara, nilgai, wild boar, spotted deer and sambar, has a good prey base for the cheetahs, he added. "According to the approved timeline sent to us by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change this week, the tentative budget outlay of the 'Project Cheetah' is Rs 1,400 lakh for this fiscal," the minister said. An expert from South Africa visited the Kuno National Park on April 26 this year along with scientists from the WII and inspected the facilities and habitat created there for the introduction of African cheetahs. They approved it and now the final process of bringing the cheetah is underway, a forest official said.

“Managing cheetahs is much easier than large carnivores like tigers, lions, and leopards, which we have been doing all these years, as these big cats enter into least conflict with humans,” said Jhala, who was also involved in all the technical aspects of the NTCA’s Project Tiger in 2002. “The main factor that will impact the success of this translocation project is the central government’s political will and allocation of resources and funding,” Jhala added. However, experts also noted that the lack of a separate sanctuary for cheetahs might be a barrier in establishing a viable population in the India. In Africa, 77 per cent of cheetahs live outside protected areas because of other larger predators, all of which compete with cheetahs for prey and also prey on cheetah cubs.  But the Rajasthan government has already filed a petition in the Supreme Court claiming conflict between lions and tigers in Madhya Pradesh because a natural corridor of movement exists between Kuno in MP and Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan.

In neighbouring Bangladesh - the Bengal Tiger and the cheetah have lived side by side in the forest areas of the country’s three hill tract districts during 1980's. The Bengal Tiger is not seen there anymore and now lives in the Sundarbans only. Cheetahs are barely surviving in the forests of the three hill tracts districts and three another forest areas and the cheetah population has fallen low.  According to wildlife researchers and organisations, there are still 30 to 50 cheetahs in the country. A big portion of them live in the forest areas of Khagrachhari, Bandarban and Rangamati. Cheetahs are occasionally seen in Cox's Bazar, several places of Sylhet division and the northern region including Sherpur, Lalmonirhat, Kurigram and Panchagarh.

Miles away, decades ago, there reportedly was organized Cheetah racing in Romford, in UK.   It is alleged that during the late 1930s, cheetah racing took place at a number of venues. Millionaire Kenneth Cecil Gandar-Dower (1908-44), a leading sportsman, aviator, explorer and author, had embarked upon an unsuccessful expedition to Kenya in 1934 to find evidence for the marozi, a spotted lion rumoured to exist there. Returning in December 1936, he brought back to England 12 cheetahs, captured in the woods by farmers.   Rumours abounded that they were for coursing live game and in February 1937, questions were raised in Parliament about his intentions. Public opinion was outraged and two cheetahs were subsequently found dead in their cages by their keeper. Gandar-Dower gave assurances that he was doing nothing illegal or inhumane and set about training the cheetahs to race with the help of Raymond Hook – the anglicised name of Hooku, a ranger from Kenya.

In June 1937, after acclimatisation to their new environment and six months' quarantine at Hackbridge Kennels in Surrey, an Australian.  Ruby Henderson, was enlisted to train and care for the cheetahs at Harringay Stadium. It was stated  that cheetahs responded more readily to females. By the time she became involved, only nine cheetahs remained; these were named Helen, Gussie, Maurice, Luis, Pongo, Sita, Gypsy, James and Michael.  On the first night, three races were included on the race card and the stadium was packed to capacity. The first race, over 265 yards, was between Helen and two greyhounds. She bounded out of her cage leaving the dogs standing, reaching 50mph within two seconds and finishing the tack in 15.86 seconds, breaking the course record.

The astounded audience had never witnessed anything like this before. The national press eagerly published stories about Helen’s success, nicknaming her Queen of the Track. However, the second race, between Gussie and James, was a portent of the shortcomings of racing cheetahs. With Gussie taking the lead, James simply ceased running and lay down, refusing to finish the course.  The earlier excitement generated by the races diminished as predictability of the outcome dawned upon spectators. Although Romford Stadium continued to hold further occasional events involving cheetahs, it was more for spectacle, rather than competition.

With hindsight, cheetah racing had been ill-considered. Cheetahs are solitary hunters and expend a phenomenal level of physical exertion when catching their prey, usually necessitating that they lie down and recuperate afterwards. They will only chase prey where there is a high likelihood of securing their next meal, readily giving up if there is strong competition – they lack the will and doggedness necessary for competitive racing.  By April 1938, bored with the predictability of racing against greyhounds, Gandar-Dower devised another spectacle – racing cheetahs against a motorcycle. In May Harringay Stadium witnessed the first such race with live radio commentary. Not long afterwards the cheetahs were sold to circus veteran Jack Harvey. They continued to tour the country until the outbreak of war, but what became of them thereafter is unknown. As for Gandar-Dower, he lost his life in 1944 on a troopship sailing from Mombasa to Ceylon when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.

During a holiday trip to Gir – in an open truck for nearly 2 hours – we could not spot a single wild animal – leave alone sighting majestic Asiatic Lions ! .. .. may be one sights Cheetah in India !

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
27th MaY 2021.
Cheetah photos from twitter page : @HourlyCheetahs 

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