India welcomes cheetahs back 70 years after local extinction


Eight Namibian cheetahs have arrived in India in an ambitious project to reintroduce the spotted creatures that wildlife experts have divided after the big cats became locally extinct decades ago.

Officials say the project is the world’s first intercontinental movement of cheetahs, the world’s fastest land animal. The five females and three males were transferred from a wildlife park in Namibia aboard a chartered Boeing 747 called “Cat Plane” for an 11-hour flight.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi presided over the release on Saturday in Kuno National Park, a wildlife sanctuary 320 km (200 miles) south of New Delhi, selected for its abundant prey and grasslands.

“Today, the cheetah has returned to the bottom of India,” Modi said in a video address following their arrival, which coincided with the leader’s 72nd birthday.

“The nature-loving consciousness of India has also awakened with full force. We must not let our efforts fail.”

Each of the animals, aged between two and five and a half years, was equipped with a satellite collar to track their movements. They will initially be quarantined for about a month before being released into the park’s open forest areas.

Grow the population

Critics have warned that the creatures may struggle to adapt to the Indian habitat. A significant number of leopards are present in the park, and naturalist Ravi Chellam said cubs can prey on wild dogs and other carnivores.

According to the government’s current action plan, “the prospects for a viable, wild and free-ranging population of cheetahs to settle in India are bleak,” he said.

“The habitats should have been prepared before the cats were taken from Namibia. It’s like moving to a new city with only a sub-optimal place to stay. Not a good situation at all.”

But the organizers were not impressed.

“Cheetahs are highly adaptable and [I’m] assuming they will adapt well to this environment,” said Laurie Marker, founder of the Namibia-based charity Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), which has been at the heart of project logistics. “I don’t have much to worry about.”

Another 12 cheetahs from South Africa are expected to join the young Indian population next month.

As India raises more money for the 910 million rupee ($11.4 million) project, funded largely by state-owned Indian Oil, it hopes to eventually grow the population to about 40 cats.

Habitat loss and hunting

India was once home to the Asiatic cheetah, but was declared extinct in the country in 1952.

The critically endangered subspecies, which once roamed the Middle East, Central Asia and India, is now found only in very small numbers in Iran.

Efforts to reintroduce the animals to India gained momentum in 2020 when the Supreme Court ruled that African cheetahs, another subspecies, could be established in India on an experimental basis in a “carefully chosen location”.

They are a donation from the government of Namibia, one of the few countries in Africa where the beautiful creature survives in the wild.

Cheetahs became extinct in India mainly due to habitat loss and the hunt for their distinctive spotted coats.

It is widely believed that an Indian prince, Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo, killed the last three recorded cheetahs in India in the late 1940s.

Cheetahs, one of the oldest of the big cat species, with ancestry dating back about 8.5 million years, once roamed Asia and Africa in large numbers. But today there are only about 7,000 left, mostly in the African savannas.

The cheetah is listed globally as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. In North Africa and Asia it is “critically endangered”.

Some Indian scientists say that modern India presents challenges that the animals hadn’t faced in the past [File: Noah Seelam/AFP]


Some Indian scientists say that modern India presents challenges that the animals had not faced in the past.

A single cheetah needs a lot of space to roam. An area of ​​100 square kilometers (38 square miles) can contain six to 11 tigers, 10 to 40 lions, but only one cheetah.

Once the cheetahs cross Kuno’s unfenced boundaries, “in six months they will be taken out by domestic dogs, by leopards,” said wildlife biologist Ullas Karanth, director of the Center for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru. “Or they kill a goat and villagers will poison them [in response].”

Fears of poachers hindered another project involving a 2013 Supreme Court order to move some of the world’s last remaining Asiatic lions from their only sanctuary in the western Indian state of Gujarat to Kuno. Now the cheetahs will take over that space.

“Cheetahs cannot be India’s burden,” said Chellam, an authority on Asiatic lions. “These are African animals that are found in dozens of locations. The Asiatic lion is a single population. A simple look at the situation shows which species should have priority.”

Other conservation experts say the promise to restore cheetahs in India is worth the challenges.

“Cheetahs play an important role in grassland ecosystems,” Marker says.

She and her collaborators will help monitor the cats’ settlement, hunting and reproduction for years to come.

Modi called on people to be patient while the cats adapt. “To make Kuno National Park their home, we need to give these cheetahs a few months.”

A cheetah rests after being prepared for its translocation to India from Otjiwarongo, Namibia [Cheetah Conservation Fund via Reuters]

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