How the cheetah, hunting ally of Mughals & ‘vermin’ for British Raj, went extinct in India

New Delhi: The Union environment ministry told Parliament this week that the Asiatic cheetah — once native to India — went extinct “primarily due to hunting and habitat loss”. The animal was declared extinct in India in 1952.

The government now plans to revive the cheetah population in the country by importing the animal from Namibia and South Africa “on an experimental basis”.

India sealed the deal with Namibia on 20 July, and the government told Parliament Monday that it is “in the advanced stage of consultation with South Africa”.

This is not the first attempt in India at importing the cheetah. There have been previous attempts to bring in cheetahs from Iran, for example, and there are records of the erstwhile princely states bringing in the animal from Africa.

A trip through the archives reveals how different perceptions about the cheetah — from a key ally in hunting for India’s Mughal rulers, to a less-than favourable outlook in the British Raj — played a key role in its diminishing numbers.


Cheetahs in the Mughal era

Known to be the fastest animal on land, cheetahs are the smallest of the big cats. They are not typically known to attack or hunt humans.

In his paper Lions, Cheetahs, and Others in the Mughal Landscape, wildlife historian and conservationist Divyabhanusinh wrote that there was a “crucial” difference between the lion and the cheetah in the Mughal era.

“The former was an object, the ultimate object being royal game, to be dispatched in style when encountered. The cheetah, on the other hand, was to be caught and trained after taming it, as an instrument of shikar (hunting),” he wrote.

Cheetahs were captured from the wild and trained to course (hunt or pursue) blackbuck, and “were looked after with great care” by the Mughals, according to Divyabhanusinh.

He described in the paper how, in 1572, Akbar took a cheetah — named Chitr Nanjan — out for a hunting trip in what is now the area around the Jaipur airport, and was so pleasantly surprised by the animal’s performance that he ordered it be given “a jewel studded collar and a drum was beaten in front of it”.


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