It is estimated that in the year 1900, more than 100,000 cheetahs were found in 44 countries throughout Africa and Asia; today, the species is extinct in over 20 countries and just over 10,000 cheetahs remain the world over. The cheetah is classified as an endangered species, and is listed in Appendix I (which includes species that are most threatened) of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
The cheetah is of the order carnivora and belongs to the family felidae. It is the world’s fastest land animal, and can run at the speed of 70mph, which is why it is often referred to as ‘the greyhound’ of cats. In appearance, the cheetah resembles a hound, so much so that for a long time it was believed to be a dog-cat, a kind of cross between the two. Scientifically, there is little doubt that it is a cat — with numerous black spots, a black streak running down from the corner of each eye along the face, taller than the leopard and with a remarkably small waist, slim and sinewy legs, and semi-retractable claws; all perfectly designed to make it nature’s most efficient sprinter.
 In Antiquity and in History
The word ‘cheetah’ is derived from the Sanskrit word chitraka, which means ‘speckled’, referring to its speckled coat. The cheetah is extinct in India and the last record dates back to 1947, when the last of the big cats was hunted. The damning bullets were fired by Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of the erstwhile state of Korea in Sarguja district in Madhya Pradesh. He came across three males, all believed to be of the same litter, one night in 1947 and shot all three of them. There are no authentic records of cheetah after this shameful episode. The Bombay Natural History Society comments on this episode and records “that the cheetah was a rare and harmless animal, probably the last of a dying race”. Today, the Asiatic Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) is found only in Iran. Critically endangered and with little hope for revival, now there are only about 25 cheetahs existing in the country.
Going back in time, the cheetah, clearly, had its imprint across a wide range of India. In 1867, T.C. Jordon, surgeon in the Madras Army and author of The Mammals of India, traces its habitat throughout central India, part of south India through Sindh and Rajputana to the Punjab. It lived in the semi-desert, scrub jungles and grassland areas of India, where it could sprint with minimum obstruction. The cheetah’s prey was mainly blackbuck, chinkara and the young of larger ungulates such as the cheetal, nilgai and, occasionally, livestock.
The cheetah’s passage in India can be traced to, though not with much accuracy, rock paintings in the caves in Chambal Valley, and Bhimbetka and Kahavai near Bhopal. There is some speculation of a Mohanjodaro seal depicting a cheetah-like animal and it is believed that the Greeks and Romans imported cheetahs among other animals from India.
There is little record of the cheetah in the wild, though there is much in history of the cheetah as a royal pet used for hunting. Interestingly, the cheetah was the only big cat trained by kings to hunt for blackbucks. The first definitive record of the use of cheetahs for hunting appears in the Sanskrit text, Manasollasa, which describes in flourishing detail the royal activity of Vyaghraja, where the deer is hunted with trained cheetahs. By the time Manasollasa was written in the 12th century, coursing with cheetahs was an established tradition in court life, but it was in the period of the Mughal Empire that the cheetah came to occupy a prominent niché in imperial life.
Emperor Akbar was particularly passionate about the sport; he had during his reign about 9,000 cheetahs and, at one point of time, his stables housed 1,000 cheetahs. Emperor Jehangir was equally fond of this sport and his autobiography, Jehangirnama, details many such hunts. Aurangzeb continued the tradition. It was the grandiose hunting passion of the Mughals that took its toll on the cheetah population, but the hunt was not restricted to them and was passionately indulged in by other royal houses as well. The Mewar School of painting depicts the Maharana of Udaipur coursing with the cheetah, as did Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur. Kolhapur was also famous for this sport, though once the cheetah became rarer, many royal houses including Kolhapur, Baroda, Bhavnagar started importing and breeding cheetahs from Africa to continue the sport.
 Is Reintroduction Possible?
It was hunting, capture of cheetahs for hunting and the massive destruction of its habitat that contributed to the downfall of the animal, till none remained. The question of reintroducing the cheetah into India has been considered for years, since about the time India lost the cat. But reintroduction is not an easy task; firstly, only Iran seems to have some cheetahs left and it is unlikely that it would part with any of its cheetah population; secondly, reintroduction comes with its own share of problems. If the causes of extermination of a race persist, it is not considered prudent to bring it back to life — India’s burgeoning population will not welcome a predator, its potential habitat has shrunk to negligible, and the country is struggling to protect its other big cats from poachers, habitat destruction, and human and livestock pressure. In such a scenario, many experts wonder on the benefits of reintroduction of the cheetah in India.
 References and Useful Websites
- The Mammals of India, by T.C. Jordan
- Akbarnama, the biographical account of Emperor Akbar
- End of a Trail, by Divyabhanusinh
- Prerna Singh Bindra, The Pioneer