The Spotted Phoenix

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The female Cheetah had to kill today. Her cubs were hungry and she had to eat to produce milk for them. It had been more than four days and she had not made a kill. She had espied a herd of Blackbuck grazing not too far from where she had hidden her cubs. Luck was with her as she was downwind of the herd. Thus began her stalk.

Keeping her belly close to the ground she began to shadow the antelopes. Inch by inch she edged forward, and taking advantage of every dip and rise on the ground, every bush and boulder in her path, she began to close the gap between herself and the herd.

The big stag, who stood sentinel over the feeding group, looked up occasionally to sniff the air and take stock of the surroundings, but could not detect the approaching enemy. Suddenly the wind changed direction.

The Cheetah felt the wind die and abruptly change its course. Predatory instincts developed over megaannums warned her that her presence would be detected in no time; she braced herself for the final charge. The alert stag also sensed the shift in the wind, and on it rode the dreadful scent of the hunter. Two things happened simultaneously: the Cheetah charged, just as the stag gave the alarm call.

Pandemonium broke out as the frightened herd bolted in all directions. The large male was directly in the line with the Cheetah’s attack, but it was an experienced animal, and by a fraction of a second leaped clear of the spotted cat’s path. Directly behind him and also in the line of the Cheetah’s path was another, younger stag… quick of limb, but low on experience! It scooted… and the chase began.

Cheetah is the fastest terrestrial mammal on the planet. Unlike other cats, it is not built for strength. Its entire physical structure is designed for the chase at high speeds and tackling small to medium-sized prey, anything from birds, gazelles, and antelopes. Its lean body mass and reduced weight are capable of explosive bursts of speed, quick acceleration and the ability to maneuver itself at high speeds while chasing fleet-footed prey. In less than four seconds Mother Cheetah had accelerated to a speed of nearly 100 km an hour. She could not hold this speed for more than a minute and knew she had to bring down her prey… pronto!

The Cheetah’s slim and sinewy frame is equipped with an elongated spine and long legs that enable it to take strides as long as seven meters while sprinting. Longer bones in the legs increase the length of each jump and a straighter flexible vertebral column adds to the length. The fleeing target does not run in a straight line; it changes direction often, so it cannot be tackled easily. The Cheetah follows in its wake ready for this tactic and does not let go as the quarry zigzags its way through the vegetation.

All cats have retractable claws that are kept sharp, and unsheathed only during the attack and kill, but Cheetah is the only cat that has semi-retractable claws that are blunt like a dog’s to give it better traction while turning swiftly on the run, and also when braking at high speeds. Its long bushy tail has a flat surface that acts as the rudder of the boat, swinging left and right, helping to balance the body during the chase.

For achieving phenomenal high speeds Cheetah has large nostrils that allow for increased oxygen intake. They have enlarged heart and lungs connected to a very efficient circulatory system with strong arteries and adrenals that work in tandem to circulate oxygen through their blood very efficiently.

The galloping Blackbuck’s hooves raised dust and debris as it fled, and the Mother Cheetah raced through the dust cloud, desperately trying to outflank the buck as it changed direction in the blink of an eye. The chase and its outcome would be decided in less than a minute and that’s all she had. She had to kill, to survive, to feed her cubs, and to keep the circle of life in motion. An irony of nature is that one dies to keep another alive.

In this game of death, the Mother Cheetah at last found that propitious moment when she lashed out at the racing hooves of the Blackbuck. Being hit at full speed the galloping Blackbuck could not retain its balance and crashed face down on the hard ground, its hind legs flailing in the air. The Cheetah, also racing at top speed, braked hard so as not to fly past the fallen bovid. If she did not stop immediately the buck would recover, stand up and run away, however she would not have the energy to give chase again. But nature has provided the Cheetah with pointed pads at the back of each forepaw, which brings the speeding cat to an almost instantaneous halt when it slams down both its front legs really hard. The Mother Cheetah came to a screeching halt and in a flash was upon the fallen buck burying its canines in the buck’s gullet. The chase usually lasts no more than a minute, but it can take up to five minutes or more for life to ebb out of a dying animal. Nature can be very cruel.

Mother Cheetah had won the day! Her cubs would not go hungry for now. Tomorrow would be another day… another struggle for survival!

This is not a scene depicted from the savannahs of the African continent. It is a hunt described from the Kathiawar-Gir dry deciduous forests that stretch across the Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, where the Indian Cheetah shared its habitat with the Asiatic Lion and the hardy Leopard. Yes! Cheetahs lived and hunted in the Indian wilds till the middle of the 20th century. Their history is enmeshed in controversy; their conservation efforts mired in time, due to a general lack of apathy towards conservation of wildlife in the country. But, thankfully, owing to the efforts of some intrepid ecologists and conscientious politicians the Cheetah may once again be able to hunt in the grasslands of the Indian subcontinent.

Cheetah’s historic limits span an area that stretches in a curve from Africa, through the Middle East, into the Indian subcontinent. Loss of habitat and hunting has reduced its range by as much as 90 percent in the last 500 years. In India, the last three Cheetahs were reported as late as 1947, when the incumbent Maharaja of the erstwhile princely state of Surguja shot them in the Central Provinces (present-day Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh). Three years later there was a dubious claim of a Cheetah sighting, and such unsubstantiated reports continued for some more time, but by the seventies, the Indian Cheetah’s extinction was confirmed.

The earliest evidence of the Asiatic Cheetah in India dates back to 2500 BCE to 2300 BCE. Cave paintings of the animal can be found in Khairabad and Kharvai in the Chambal valley in Madhya Pradesh. Remarkably, a recent analysis of historical data from the earliest times has put a question mark on the Cheetah’s existence in southern Asia. According to some, Cheetah as a species was not indigenous to India but was introduced here at a much later stage. They were brought here as gifts and tributes from Persia, and even Africa, and kept as exotic pets in royal menageries across the country.

Unlike Tigers, Lions and even Leopards which find mention in ancient texts and artistic traditions of India Cheetah are conspicuous by its absence. From the prehistoric cave paintings of Bhimbetka to the seals of Mohenjo-Daro dating from 2500 BCE, down to the Mughal and Rajput paintings, Cheetah makes an appearance only during the medieval times. The Hindu Panchatantra and the Buddhist Jataka stories have tales of lions and tigers but no Cheetahs. It may then be true that Cheetahs were brought here as royal offerings to gratify the powerful Indian rulers.

The great Mughal emperor Akbar had a vivarium of more than 1000 Cheetahs; animals he used for hunting Blackbuck and the Chinkara (Indian Gazelle). During his lifetime he is said to have kept and trained almost 9000 Cheetahs, but strangely, if he and several other maharajas and nabobs kept Cheetahs as pets for hunting, there is almost no record of them being observed in their natural state throughout the subcontinent, and when they find mention it is as pets and hunting leopards (a term used erroneously by early European travelers).

According to the ‘exotic species’ theory, the wild Cheetah population that existed in the subcontinent must have been those individuals that escaped from captivity and established their territories in habitats familiar to them.

During the British Raj, Cheetahs find a place in their writings, but once again as pets, more often than wild specimens. It has been estimated that between 1875 and 1925 80,000 tigers, 150,000 leopards, and 200,000 wolves were killed, but in these fifty years, only 40 Cheetahs were seen or shot it the wild. Personally, I have not known anyone owning a Cheetah pelt, unlike hides and heads of other big cats of India.

Then what about the cave paintings in Khairabad and Kharvai? Maybe the animal that is depicted in them is not a Cheetah but a Leopard? We will have to wait for more conclusive evidence before drawing any conclusions!

If habitat loss, hunting, and capture of wild Cheetahs (whether they were indigenous or exotic species in India) caused Cheetah numbers to fall in the past then, in modern times (mid-20th century to present) some new threats have emerged. Today ecotourism, broadcast as responsible tourism, is putting pressure on wildlife and natural resources. Ecotourism is like a double-edged sword, while it brings endangered areas and animals on our radar and creates awareness about them, it also has the potential of disturbing wild animals, disrupting their breeding and migratory patterns, and destroying fragile ecosystems. Unless done responsibly ‘responsible tourism’ has the potential to wreak havoc upon the ecosystem.

For nearly a decade Cheetah experts, conservationists and wildlife officials have deliberated upon reintroduction of the Asiatic Cheetah in India under a captive breeding program. Unfortunately Only 7,100 Cheetahs are left in the wild, almost all of them in Africa; no more than 50 Asiatic Cheetahs survive in the eastern-central arid region of Iran, where the human population density is very low. As it is not possible for the government of Iran to spare any from their existing gene pool, it has been decided that African Cheetah be introduced instead, as they are genetically similar.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had filed an application with the Supreme Court of India seeking permission for the introduction of the Cheetahs from Namibia. The efforts paid dividends and on January 28th, 2020 the apex court of India gave its nod to the central government for introducing the African Cheetahs to suitable habitat in India.

Whether the Cheetah in India was an exotic alien or native species can be decided only through the rock-solid scientific study of Cheetah’s evolution, dispersal, and genetics. Till then let us assume that it was an indigenous species and celebrate its much-awaited return to the grasslands of India. Like the Phoenix that rises from its own ashes, so will the Indian Cheetah.

Long live the Cheetah. Long live the Spotted Phoenix!

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