The Cheetah: Vanishing from Africa but Returning to India

In 2016, National Geographic announced that the cheetah is “racing toward extinction,” with its population expected to decline precipitously over the next 15 years. Only around 7,000 cheetahs, the world’s fastest mammal, live in the wild. Their remaining habitat is dispersed and disjunct, with roughly 77 percent of it falling outside of protected areas. A recent scientific study found that outside of protected areas, cheetah populations are highly vulnerable and declining. The Asiatic subspecies, now limited to Iran’s arid Dasht-e Kavir, is now functionally extinct, its population limited to an estimated 12 individuals, nine of which are male.

Several hundred years ago, Cheetahs inhabited a vast area extending across most of Africa and southwestern Asia. (The map posted below, however, exaggerates and misconstrues the historical range, as is common in maps of this sort; cheetahs never lived in the dense forests of far north-central Iran or in the driest parts of the Sahara, and their range did not abruptly terminate at the modern political border between Iran and Armenia and Azerbaijan.) In prehistoric times, cheetahs also lived in Europe, where, according to one theory, they died out due to competition with lions. But as cheetahs easily coexisted with lions in historical times across most of Africa and southwestern Asia, this thesis is unconvincing. Regardless of where they lived, cheetahs evidently came close to extinction twice, once around 100,000 years ago and again around 12,000 years ago. Due to these near misses, cheetahs have extremely low genetic diversity, making them highly vulnerable to infectious diseases.

But just as cheetahs are vanishing from Africa, they are getting a new lease on life in India. In September 2022, eight cheetahs were transferred from Namibia to Kuno National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where they were personally released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his 72nd anniversary. (One of these cats later came down with a kidney ailment is currently undergoing treatment.) On January 25, 2023, South Africa announced that it sill send more than 100 cheetahs to India. Whether Kuno is large enough to sustain a viable cheetah population is an open question, leading some biologists to express reservations about the entire initiative. In the future, they might also have to compete with lions. In the 1990s, Kuno was selected as the main site of the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project, which resulted in the removal 1,650 Adivasis (tribal people) from Kuno National Park. India’s – and indeed, Asia’s – only remaining lion population has long been restricted to Gir National Park in Gujarat, making it highly vulnerable to extinction. Gujarat, however, has successfully resisted the transfer of any of its lions to Kuno, even though its own population has overpopulated its restricted range.

Cheetahs have a celebrated history in India, where they were widely used by aristocrats as a semi-domesticated hunting animal. According to the Indian author Divyabhanusinh, the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great owned some 9,000 cheetahs over the course of his lifetime, although most experts think that this figure is greatly exaggerated. Regardless of numbers, tame Cheetahs figure prominently in Mughal art and were held in high esteem. But cheetahs were also killed in large numbers by elite Indian and British hunters. According to Wikipedia, “Three of India’s last cheetahs were shot by the Maharajah of Surguja in 1948. The same maharaja “has the notorious record of having shot and killed a total of 1,710 Bengal tigers, the highest known individual score.”

India was not the only place in which cheetahs were used extensively in hunting. Images from the third millennium BCE in both Mesopotamia and Egypt depict leashed cheetahs. According to the Indian blogger Rahultiwary, citing Wildcats of the World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist, “Later the cats were widely used in the Middle East, Afghanistan, southern Russia, Pakistan, India, and China. Tame cheetahs were used to hunt goitered [or black-tailed] gazelles, foxes, and hares in Russia and Mongolia, and the sport flourished during the middle ages in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. In 1474, one Armenian ruler owned 100 hunting cheetahs.” In Central Asia and the Caucasus, cheetahs here evidently exterminated in the 1950s, and by the late 1970s they were hunted out of the Arabian Peninsula as well.

The gradual disappearance of cheetahs from Africa, coupled with their reintroduction to India, has important lessons for conservation biology. Many environmentalists who warn about the impending “sixth wave of extinctions” also think that economic growth and development more generally are the root cause of the crisis. According to the noted Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, the primary drivers are “continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich” Continuing economic growth, such authors argue, entails the extraction of ever more resources, which will eventually – and quite soon in Ehrlich’s view – reach the point of exhaustion, resulting in a systemic collapse. Although their dire predictions have all failed thus far, eco-pessimists might be right in the long term , as only time can tell. But in the short term, they are almost certainly wrong. Rampant habitat loss and wildlife destruction is occurring primarily in the least developed parts of the world. Where economic development has reached an advanced stage, habitat is generally increasing and wildlife is rebounding. Economic development is also closely correlated with reduced human fertility; economically surging India now has a below-replacement-rate Total Fertility Rate of around 2.0, whereas in economically troubled Niger the figure stands at 6.6. To the extent that economic development is hindered in tropical Africa for environmental reasons, the destruction of nature can be expected to be intensified rather than reversed. Even in Europe, environmentally justified energy austerity programs are accompanied by increased environmental degradation. When people have difficulty affording power, trees can be quickly sacrificed for fuel, as is indeed occurring in some of Europe’s few remaining old growth forests.

India deserves credit for protecting and restoring wildlife and wild lands at a far higher level than might be expected on the basis on its raw developmental standing. Most of the world’s remaining wild tigers, for example, live in India, even though India accounts for a relatively small portion of the animal’s original range, and even though India is far poorer than most countries that had, or still have, viable tiger populations. The contrast in wildlife conservation between India and China is especially stark and has been apparent for hundreds if not thousands of years. The sad story of China’s long history of wildlife extirpation can be found in Mark Elvins’ well-researched book, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China.

As a final note, North America had its own “cheetah” (Miracinonyx trumani) until the Pleistocene-Holocene Extinction Event circa 12,000 years ago, which wiped out roughly 85 percent of its large mammals. This large America cat was morphologically similar to the cheetah. It was likewise built for speed, as was its main prey, the pronghorn “antelope.” Recent genetic research, however, has shown that Miracinonyx trumani was much more closely related to the puma (cougar or mountain lion) than to the eastern hemisphere’s cheetah, and is therefore now properly deemed “the American cheetah-like cat.” It came to resemble the cheetah through convergent evolution, not from descent from a common ancestral species.