Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Spotted Feline

“Have you recovered from the cheetah attack” is a question I often face these days. I wish it was the cheetah. But unfortunately, in the minds of most of us, the leopard is confused as the cheetah, and do not realize that the cheetah has been one of the little-known victims of extinction at a time when we were rejoicing the country’s independence. In 1947, the last of the Indian cheetahs were hunted by Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of the erstwhile state of Korea (in the current state of Madhya Pradesh) bringing in a sad end to one of the graceful cats which was described by Emperor Akbar as ‘one of God’s wonders’. Thereafter a few patchy, unverified records of cheetah sightings have been registered till 1968.

It is indeed an irony that etymology of the word cheetah comes from the Sanskrit name “chitraka”, meaning the spotted one. Also called the hunting leopard in English, this graceful cat once roamed the grasslands and plains of pre-independent India in the current day states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, and ranged widely in the Deccan Plateau through Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar, Chattisgarh, and West Bengal.
Cheetah is the animal of the plains and scrubland

Karnataka’s distinction

In Karnataka, cheetahs were recorded from Bellary, Mysore, and Chamarajanagara. Sixteen cheetahs were known to be used by Tipu Sultan, of which three of them were sent to King Geroge III after Tipu fell in the Battle of Srirangapattna. Two skins were seen in the 1860s in the Mysore state by G.P.Sanderson, a British officer who took a keen interest in wildlife.

In 1882 another British officer Russell saw five cheetahs near Beerambadi, which is at the northern edge of what is current day Bandipur Tiger Reserve, of which one was shot dead. A district manual of Coimbatore published in 1887 records the cheetah in Bandhalli in Kollegala taluk, Chamarajanagara district very close to the southern boundaries of the current day Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. A cheetah was seen by the British coffee planter Morris, between 1890-1895 near Attikalpura about 15 km from Chamarajanagara town.

I learnt my Kannada word for cheetah, ‘Sivangi’, from my father when he explained about it when he took me to a circus in my younger days. Three decades later I read the word again in the acclaimed book on cheetahs ‘The End of a Trail’ by Divyabhanusinh.

Curious relationship
There was a curious relationship between this graceful cat and humans. Cheetahs were domesticated by Egyptians as early as 1700 BC a culture which later spread to Assyria, and finally into India and Central Asia. Sanskrit literature and Muslim records in India depicts the training of cheetahs to course antelopes but at later stages of history.

Its downfall in India is largely attributed to the disappearance of its natural habitat - the grasslands to agriculture and other developmental activities, and of hunting of cheetah for sport by the erstwhile princes, Mughal kings, and later the British rulers.

The cheetahs occupied a unique place in the imperial court life and pastime of many of the Indian rulers. Mughals collected cheetahs for their royal hunts, ironically to hunt the cheetah’s prey species - the antelopes. Emperor Akbar is recorded to have collected 1,000 cheetahs, however in his entire reign he may have collected as many as 9,000 cheetahs. Even the Hindu kings of Rajasthan and Maharashtra used cheetahs to hunt antelope but the impact of the Mughals on cheetahs is of a vast and lavish scale for all times says historical records.

The enterprise of hunting also had a direct consequence on the range contraction of its primary prey the chinkara, and the blackbuck. In 1619 the Mughal King Jahangir, in a space of twelve days, hunted 426 antelopes in Palam. (where the Delhi airport is now located) as per wildlife historian Mahesh Rangarajan. That was the scale of hunting.

Cheetawala pardhis, the hunter/trapper tribals with specialized skills to capture and train cheetahs who originated from Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh were appointed on a monthly salary to catch cheetahs. They caught the animals through various means including pit-fall traps, snaring and sold to the darbars.

The cheetah has also been a victim of conflict. It came into direct conflict with people by preying on domestic sheep and goat resulting in retaliatory killing, one of the possible causes resulting in its decline.

Current and historical distribution
Today the swiftest mammal on earth exists in 23 countries in Africa and is found in only one relict population in Asia, in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This depicts that this unique member of the cat family has perhaps vanished from approximately 91 percent of their historic range with about 7,000 individuals surviving in the wild. In Asia, the cheetah, survives precariously in Iran with about 40-70 individuals surviving in the Miandasht Wildlife Refuge, Touran Biosphere Reserve, Naybandan Wildlife Sanctuary and, possibly in the Darband-e Ravar Wildlife Refuge according to the Iranian Cheetah Society.

In other parts of Asia, it had ranged in Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Saudi, Israel, Jordan, Oman and a few other countries till the early 1950s with India being its easternmost boundary. They were also found in the former USSR states of Turkmenistan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan regions but none exists in these countries today.

Current day scenario
Over its entire current day distribution the drivers of the decline of this cat, known for its docility, includes loss of prey species, conflict with humans, and habitat loss. It’s classified under the Vulnerable category, by the IUCN, but its subspecies found in Northwest Africa and Iran are classified as Critically Endangered.

The cheetah’s speed is legendary, and nothing in nature can outrun a cheetah. But it has no solutions to high-speed vehicular traffic in Iran. The Iranian Cheetah Society says of the 34 known cheetah deaths since 2001, 15 cheetahs were killed in vehicle collisions. That’s a very high rate considering the tiny population of Asiatic cheetahs.

However, cheetahs in Iran are now a symbol of wildlife conservation, even the national football team has adopted the cheetah as their logo.

The current and historical distribution of the cheetah in the wild - Source Durant et al. 2017

Did the cheetah exist in India?
Some well-noted naturalists, including Kailash Sankhala, argue that the cheetah is not native to India and that they were brought to the country by princes and potentates for sport. Noted among the critiques includes Valmik Thapar who writes in his book ‘Exotic Aliens’ that “there was never an Asiatic cheetah”, and “cheetahs in India came into this country as gifts or tributes and were imported by land and sea from Africa and Persia”. He bolsters his arguments by the fact that there was a flourishing trade in animals from Africa to India by the Romans. 
It is also argued that the British shikar literature hardly has any mention of the cheetahs. In contrary Divyabhanusinh’s book argues that the cheetah population was already dwindling and had become very rare in India in the 19th and 20th Centuries along with their open grassland habitats. This necessitated the importing of these animals from Africa, for cheetah coursing, by princely states.

But what is notable is that most art history in India depicts cheetah from the 12th Century onwards, while the tiger, leopard and other large wildlife have been depicted in several of our art forms. However, Divyabhanusinh’s book has shown Neolithic paintings from cave shelters at Kharvai near Bhopal, Chatarbhujnath in Chambal valley, and several other locations. In all probabilities, these cave paintings are assumed to be products of the ancestors of today’s tribals of non-Aryan and non-Dravidian origin.  Perhaps this provides a very ancient evidence of the cheetah’s presence in India.

Thapar also says that the cheetahs in Mysore and Bangalore area were all escapees from royal menageries. Nevertheless, the authors of Exotic Aliens agree to the fact that there is no conclusive genetic evidence to prove or disprove their theory. And geneticists have said that African and Asiatic cheetahs had been separated thousands of years ago.

History has to grapple with science chiefly with biogeography if it has to make its point based on species distribution. Bio-geographers could pose serious questions about the theories raised by Valmik Thapar. India is part of the Ethiopian biogeography where similar species including gazelles, antelopes, small and large carnivores are found across continents. Hence, convincing bio-geographers from this perspective would have further enriched the claims made in the Exotic Aliens.

With the cheetah extinct in India, the issue of reintroduction has been bandied around from time to time. “Thanks to Project Cheetah, the cheetah, may well roam the plains of India again,” declares a Ministry of Environment and Forests document from September 2010. Severe attempts came about to reintroduce them during the period of Jairam Ramesh who was the Minister for Environment and Forests during the NDA regime. When Iran refused to part with its cheetahs for reintroduction, India looked towards Africa and a few cheetahs were planned to be brought from Namibia.

The Nauradehi and Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh, and the Shahgarh landscape in Rajasthan were identified as potential areas for cheetah reintroduction. But the top court of the country had other ideas and shot down the NDA government’s proposal. With the NDA government losing power in 2014, the issue of cheetah reintroduction has gone silent in the country.

Apart from the cheetah, In India, four other large mammalian wildlife species went extinct in the first fifty years of the twentieth century - the Javan and Sumatran rhinos, the Sikkim stag and the banteng. All of them seem to be wildlife species that are adapted to specialized habitats. These habitat specialists lost ground in India well before the Wildlife Protection Act was enacted in 1972. Despite strict enforcement of the act, we seem to have failed to learn our lessons from the extinction of cheetah and other species, as we continue to lose habitat specialist species such as the great Indian bustard, Bengal florican, Siberian crane, Jerdon’s courser, Indian wolf, wild buffalo, and many others that go unnoticed. Hence a critical question to ask is are we failing to understand and manage the needs of the habitat specialists? 

Fact file
Scientific name: Acinonyx jubatus
Local names: Kannada: Sivangi, Telugu: Chita-puli, Tamil: Sivingi, Marathi: Cheetah, Gondi: Chitra; Hindi: Laggar, Sanskrit: Chitraka
Habitat: Largely open grasslands, plains, scrub forests  

Cheetah or Leopard?
Though the cheetah may not look different from a leopard to an untrained eye, their external body features are distinctly different.
·      Spots and rosettes: The cheetah has well-rounded and solid spots on the body while the spots on the leopard are irregular and group together to form the rosettes.
·      There are two clear black lines that streak from the inner corner of the cheetah’s eyes and down their cheeks to the outside edges of their mouth called as the tear marks. These markings are missing on the leopard’s face.
·      The cheetah has a smaller head compared to that of a leopard. It’s certainly a slimmer animal compared to the leopard.
·      Most animals of the cat family, including the leopards, have retractable claws but the cheetah’s claws are semi-retractile.  

A cheetah with its rounded spots and tear mark on the face

 A leopard with its rosettes, notice the absence of tear mark on the face

Interesting modern day literature about the Indian cheetah
The End of a Trail: Divyabhanusinh
The Exotic Aliens: Valmik Thapar, Romila Thapar, and Yusuf Ansari
India’s Wildlife History: Mahesh Rangarajan
Reminiscences of India Wildlife: Dharmakumarsinhji

An edited version of this article is published in Deccan Herald on 2nd December 2017

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A new Jungle Book?

What Elephants Know
Year: 2016
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Hard cover: Rs.890/-

It’s been a while since there was a novel based on natural history, wildlife, and life in the jungles. This is perhaps What Elephants Know has tried to accomplish. Authored by Eric Dinerstein who spent time in the Nepalese jungles of Bardia district in the mid 1970s, initially studying tigers as a Peace Corps volunteer. He later returned to study the Indian one-horned rhinoceros for his doctoral work. The book itself is inspired by the elephants, and the game scouts, the author had worked with during his research work. Hence the book shows out the intimate knowledge the author has for this place. The idea of the book itself has taken birth on a star-filled night in one of the wildest spots in Asia.

The story takes place in the low, flat land along the border between Nepal and India at the base of the Himalayas where a young boy Nanda Singh, fondly called Nandu, hits up with a plan with his friend Rita to save their elephant stable being closed. But to succeed, they’ll need a great tusker and the story takes the turn into another adventure. While their struggle to save the elephant stable and his larger community of mahouts is the major plot of the book, there are several other subplots that are interwoven beautifully to make it a very readable novel. The story develops at an even pace and keeps the reader’s attention to the end.

Nandu was found as a toddler by his foster father Subba-Sahib, a head elephant keeper, while on his regular rounds with elephants in the forests. Initially under the protective watch of a pack of dholes, the wild canids of Asia, Nandu grows up under his foster father in a royal elephant stable. He considers Subba-Sahib as his father, and Devi Kali, an old, affectionate female elephant, at the stable as his mother. Perhaps Devi Kali is the best character in the book that brings out human emotions in elephants which is possibly true if one considers the way elephants care for their young ones in the wild. Some sections that detail the relationship between Devi Kali and Nandu are movingly constructed.  

As Nandu grows up destined to become a mahout, he discovers plants, animals, good and bad people, teaching him life’s critical skills. The book grips you and can make Nandu the new Mowgli. The book takes the reader across to the magical world of Nepal’s forests. Every detail of how a mahout commands his elephants, or the description of forest flowers, birds, animals, animal behavior are authentic to the last word, except on a couple of occasions which is perhaps an integral part of any fiction writing.

What Elephants Know is perhaps more than a story of the talented, young boy who is enchanted with elephants, and other wildlife around him. It is told from the perspective of the young boy, hence has everything that interests him. But, it also has very nuanced teachings for life, and I am sure many would benefit from these sagacious words that come out of the mouth of wise men, who are important or supporting characters in the book, neatly woven into different sections of the story. The underlying themes of patience, karma, kindness, and generosity are all stated boldly but without force. Nandu also has to confront issues of cultural identity, political corruption, environmental ethics, and other issues the society faces.

The language is simple but elegant and has an excellent flow. I think few can pen like Eric, where he has combined his field observations into a novel. My favourite line from this book is when Father Autry tells his most avid pupil. “Behold Nandu. For me, the peak of evolution was reached before the age of dinosaurs. That is when the ferns of today began to appear. Many have changed in one hundred and sixty-five million years. I wonder, how can nature improve on such an elegant design?”

Eric is known for his non-fiction natural history books, including award-winning books such as Kingdom of Rarities, and Tigerland and Other Unintended Destinations. But, this is his first fiction novel, and in fact an impressive one. Though the book can be easily classified into the fiction genre, it has authentic information on natural history, which makes it difficult it to be purely classified as a fiction.
Though the book is slightly episodic, there’s enough action that counterbalances to make the readers feel it as a genuine memoir. This is a must read for everyone interested in natural history, outdoors, culture, and or simple writing. Perhaps, it cannot be categorised as a children’s novel, as reviewers have generally rated it. Everyone would enjoy it, especially those who know nature from the field. The book really transports you and makes one feel a deeper appreciation for the natural world! I would surely rate it nine out of ten.