Mintu is a young boy who is practising to run faster than a cheetah. His grandmother does not share his excitement. Although no cheetahs have been spotted in the forests near their house in Madhya Pradesh (MP) during her lifetime, even the thought of this feared ‘dangerous wild animal’ worries her. But Mintu explains that Chintu—the name he’s bestowed to the Cheetah—is not dangerous. To his sister, Mintu describes the tear-lines running from the cheetah’s inner eyes down to the sides of its mouth, which distinguish the animal from the leopards that live in their forests and sporadically hunt people’s livestock.

“Chintu Cheetah: running fast, I will arrive at Kuno and settle here” reads a poster featuring Chintu Cheetah, the mascot of the Cheetah Reintroduction Project. | Accessed from @moefcc via Twitter.

This is a story from the comic strip Chintu and Mintu, introduced by the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department and MP Tiger Foundation Society last July. The two organisations hope that sharing such pamphlets, comic strips, and posters with the residents living in and around Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno-Palpur National Park will wipe out misinformation surrounding their new neighbours–as many as 50 African Cheetahs are being relocated here from South Africa, Namibia, and other African countries. 

More than 70 years after the last cheetah was hunted down in India, the big cats will be moved to the Park under the Cheetah Reintroduction Project over the next five years. On 7 January 2022, the Project’s Action Plan was released by Bhupender Yadav, the Union Minister of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, during the 19th Meeting of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). Asiatic Cheetahs, originally found in India, only exist in Iran today, and that too, as a ‘critically endangered species’. To protect their numbers, relocated African Cheetahs will call the Kuno sanctuary their new home instead.

Hailed as the project that will “bring back independent India’s only extinct large mammal,” reintroducing cheetahs to Madhya Pradesh is also considered a boon for the conservation of their habitats—the long-ignored grasslands, scrubs, and open forests of the region. Also living in this habitat—and benefiting from this model of conservation—would also be the cheetah’s prey base. These include the Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor), and other endangered species of grassland and open forest ecosystems, like the Caracal, Indian Wolf, and the Great Indian Bustard. The first batch of cheetahs are expected to fly into Madhya Pradesh this year, but with the latest surge of COVID-19 cases, the exact timelines remain uncertain

The last three Asiatic Cheetahs in Madhya Pradesh are pictured here with Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo in 1947, after he allegedly shot them down. Since then, the Asiatic Cheetah has never been recorded in India; courtesy of the Journal of Bombay Natural History Society.

Yet, the government’s enthusiasm for the project is not reflected by the locals living in Kuno-Palpur National Park.“Cheetah aayega toh ghabrahat toh hogi hi na, [With the cheetahs coming, it’s natural that we are tense, no?],” says Ballu Adivasi, a resident of Bagcha, a village inside the Kuno Palpur National Park. “What if they attack the villagers?” he asks me over the phone, after a busy day of collecting gum from Kuno’s Salai trees, an activity that many locals here depend on for their livelihoods. 

Adivasi has not heard of Chintu Cheetah yet, but he has heard of the Cheetah Reintroduction Project. After all, his family is amongst the approximately 250 families in Bagcha who are expected to be relocated, along with the villages Jangarh and Maratha, in order to almost double the 748 square kilometres of Kuno’s ‘protected area’. In  2018, Kuno-Palpur gained the status of a National Park–making it a government-notified ‘protected area’, or a region where no human activity is permitted. 

Such relocation activities will make the “[cheetah] habitat…free from any human habitation,” a 2011 Action Plan by the MP Forest Department had suggested. “We are hoping that proper arrangements are made [for our resettlement] before we leave our homes in Bagcha,” Adivasi says. His actions are backed by a history of relocation for conservation and the non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), which weighs heavily on this region. For Adivasi communities like the Sahariyas, and other castes like Gujjars and Jatavs, this leaves them with few options other than to relocate with the arrival of the cheetahs.

No Rights To Access the Forests

An approximate boundary of the Kuno-Palpur National Park, with Bagcha village nestled within it; prepared by Vaishnavi Rathore.

“Since rainfall is scarce here, families depend more on the forest than agriculture. Jungle se hi sab kuch hai [Every aspect of our life is connected with the forest],” says Sitaram Garg, a resident of Bagcha and the owner of a daily needs shop. In a landscape generously laden with Salai trees (Boswellia serrata) for gum resin, Khardai trees (Anogeissus Pendula) for fuelwood and fodder, and many other medicinal plants, seasonal vegetables, and fruits, it’s no surprise that Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) generates 20 to 25% of the incomes of the poorest households in this region.

Now, if villages like Bagcha that are heavily forest-dependent need to be relocated from a protected area, one option they can undertake is “voluntary relocation”, described in the NTCA’s 2010 guidelines. This means that if families find it difficult to live inside protected areas due to the presence of wild animals, they can volunteer to move out, a process that is to be facilitated by their state’s Forest Department. With the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the other relocation option–less favoured by the Forest Department–is for it to settle the rights of forest dwellers and to obtain consent from their Gram Sabhas for relocation.

But the implementation of the FRA in this region–and in the rest of Madhya Pradesh–has been poor and sporadic. “Initially in 2009 and then in 2018, the district administration had granted some individual and community forest rights [to the claimants here]. But, the community awareness of the Act has been minimal. Many were not even informed that their rights have been settled,” says Ramprakash Sharma, District Coordinator of the Ekta Parishad, a national-level people’s movement working on land and forest rights. “Most of the Forest Rights Committees have been formed by the more powerful caste groups like the Yadavs and Thakurs, despite the Act mandating the role of women and Adivasis in these [leadership] positions. Moreover, the sub-divisional and district-level committees have been rejecting claims, not accepting the evidence that communities have been providing [of their historical rights over the forest]. While we [Ekta Parishad] are working to increase the awareness of the Act amongst the Sahariyas, the problem is that even most of the administration here is not aware of the Act’s provisions,” Sharma explains. As per the Ministry of Tribal Affairs’ latest data, Madhya Pradesh has so far rejected 3,69,449 claims under the FRA–which is 58% of the total claims filed up till September 2021, since the implementation of the Act in 2008. In Bagcha too, Sharma adds that establishing the processes under the FRA has not moved far.

With their forest rights still unrecognised, the residents of Bagcha have been unable to access the forests thanks to the Forest Department, and also face violence from it. This seems to have accentuated after the Cheetah Reintroduction Project was announced, pushing communities to consider their only other option–to ‘voluntarily’ relocate from their homes. 

‘Voluntarily’ Relocating For the Cheetah 

Just two days prior to our conversation, Adivasi and a few acquaintances went to bail out their neighbours from jail, something that is now a frequent activity for him. “Since 2020, the Forest Department has been preventing us from entering the forests to collect gum and other produce,” he says. The timelines add up–it was in early 2020 that the Supreme Court lifted its stay on the proposal to reintroduce cheetahs to the subcontinent, and in January 2021, Kuno was selected as the site for this experiment. “In a few cases, the forest rangers have been violent and have arrested and jailed us overnight. The department is giving us a lot of trouble. Our lives are controlled by them, we don’t really have a choice but to relocate,” Adivasi says. 

The dense forests of the Kuno-Palpur National Park; courtesy of M.G. Chandrasekar (CC BY-4.0).

Unbeknownst to him, Adivasi has made a stark remark. Under severe pressure and harassment by officials, the Forest Department seems to have ‘induced’ a need for relocation, as opposed to the “voluntary relocation”, that according to the 2022 Action Plan, is currently happening in Bagcha. Upon voluntarily relocating out of the protected areas, families can either choose to receive ₹15 lakh alone, or land for rehabilitation provided by the Forest Department along with some proportion of ₹15 lakh. 

“A list of 245 families that will be relocated has been made public by the Forest Department, and consent forms for relocation have been signed by the families,” Sitaram Garg informs me. As of now, families have been shown lands about 50 kilometres from their homes that they could acquire after relocation, but no mention of monetary compensation has been made yet.

This is not the first time that villages around Kuno are hearing of relocation plans for conservation efforts. Between 1996 and 2002, 24 villages were relocated from within the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife National Park–most of these were a mix of induced and forced displacements, yet were listed as ‘voluntary’ by the Forest Department. The families were relocated in the 1990s to make way for another charismatic mammal–the Asiatic Lion from Gujarat’s Gir forests. The lions never came. But, what did arrive were a series of socioeconomic changes for those relocated, which is a situation that might repeat itself with the Cheetah Reintroduction Project.

First the Asiatic Lion, Now the Cheetah: How Did Livelihoods Change?

“Their livelihoods just collapsed [after being relocated],” says Dr. Asmita Kabra, a Professor at the School of Human Ecology at Ambedkar University, Delhi, and Founder and Trustee of the Madhya Pradesh-based NGO Samrakshan Trust. Dr. Kabra is referring to the 5,000 plus residents of 24 villages who were relocated from the Kuno-Palpur Park for the Asiatic Lion. “While residents from these relocated villages still collect produce like ber [a type of jujube] which has a smaller economic value, they lost access to high-value NTFP like gum.” 

Moreover, upon being relocated for the lion, most families left their livestock inside the sanctuary due to the poor availability of fodder in the relocated sites. Now, to plough their fields, they have to depend on hiring tractors. “Since cash is not always readily available, many farmers enter sharecropping arrangements with the tractor owners [who are usually from higher castes], where only about one-third of their crop remains with those who grew it,” Kabra adds. 

Droughts and floods both frequent this landscape. “Over time, the Sahariyas developed complex strategies to cope with such disasters, such as practising a mix of subsistence agriculture, livestock rearing, and collecting and selling forest produce. These systems were lost upon relocation,” says Kabra.

Ballu Adivasi and his family also diversify their resource dependency and risks. He grows mustard and chickpeas on about 2 bighas (approximately 1.2 acres) of land, and collects gum-resin and medicinal plants from the forests. But he suspects that this cultivation pattern would change upon relocating for the cheetah. “The new land that the Forest Department is showing us seems good, but there is not much forest there. We will have to primarily subsist on agriculture and if that fails, we will have to do wage labour,” he says. “Even in the previous relocations [due to the lion], only about 10% of the families seem to be managing well with agriculture. The rest are working as daily-wage labourers now.”

Adivasi’s observation is in line with Kabra’s research–about 17 of the 24 villages reported that for two months a year, jobs procured after migrating long distances were the only source of income. “We understood the extent and spread of this migration during the first lockdown of the pandemic [in March of 2020], when we started getting distress calls from those who had migrated as far [south] as Kerala’s Kasargod and Andhra Pradesh’s Nellore and could not return home,” Kabra adds. 

Nevertheless, both Garg and Adivasi mention that their relocation is inevitable and might be the only other option left given that their access to forests has been curtailed. The administration too seems prepared. “Alternate lands have been shown to those who opted for relocation, and we have the money to compensate them,” says C.S Ninama, Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) and Director of the Lion Project. “People don’t have to worry about the cheetah just yet. Initially, the cheetahs will be kept in an enclosure of approximately 500 hectares, after which we will study their behaviour and breeding to assess the success of the reintroduction. Only after that they will be released in the Park. This whole process will take two to three years which is enough time for people to be relocated out of the protected area.”

This historic reintroduction will “bring Kuno and Sheopur [the district where Kuno is nestled] onto the map of India,” Ninama says. “The project is already increasing the land value here, and is a way to bring employment to the people in the form of eco-tourism.” The talk of the cheetahs is certainly bringing in more interest from tourists, but how the state plans to involve local communities in this rising tourism industry is yet to be seen.

Will the Big Cats Create Business for Locals?

“When the lions were expected to arrive in the 1990s, a lot of investors were interested in building tourist properties [that decade]. But [as the animals never arrived], they pulled out when they realised that there was not enough footfall,” explains Jinesh, a contractor with the Madhya Pradesh government for 20 years now, who also runs a government guest house near Kuno. “Now with cheetahs, a lot of interest has been generated around Kuno. But, I feel that the state government has not been able to market this place, the medicinal plants, wildlife, or architecture well enough for tourists [to come here otherwise]. This approach from the state has not changed yet with the cheetah.”

As Jinesh further develops the property, he plans to promote the local employment of Adivasi communities. At present he has employed about 20 local men. “I want to make this my brand value. While even the government has employed locals, they have not trained them with hotel management or hospitality skills well. So, tourists don’t always have a great experience, thereby keeping the footfall low. As a result, not enough income [for tourism around Kuno] gets generated.”

Kabra reiterates this need to incorporate local communities. “The Cheetah Action Plan mentions that the reintroduction of the big cats would ‘greatly enhance local communities’ livelihoods through eco-tourism prospects’. But, active attempts have to be made to facilitate tourism [here] and include local communities in these plans.”

Kabra also points towards more public accountability when it comes to the project’s finances. “Money was already spent for the enclosures, fences, and check dams created for the Asiatic Lion, which were never used. Similar projects are underway for cheetahs, yet there does not seem to be any [government] accountability regarding the money spent preparing for them,” Kabra says. In July 2021, fencing the enclosures for the cheetahs alone was reported to cost ₹6 crore.

For a long-term project such as the Cheetah Reintroduction Project–which is said to benefit India’s grasslands and the species it supports–more focus can be placed currently to ensure the best transition possible for the communities who willingly relocate for it. Additionally, pushing to implement the FRA can also ensure that forest-dependent communities truly make the best choice for themselves. In its absence, communities’ might view the cheetah antagonistically, as a factor responsible for their relocation and as a threat to their livestock–potentially mimicking cases across the country where leopards are beaten to death. A lacuna that intense would perhaps not be in the ambit of Chintu Cheetah to fill.

Featured image: the mascot Chintu Cheetah being launched by the Madhya Pradesh Forest Minister Kunwar Vijay Shah in July of 2021; courtesy of Vejayanantham T.R. via Twitter.



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