Cheetahs are set to roam in India for the first time since being declared extinct in 1952 after a consignment of animals was flown from southern Africa.
The big cats boarded a Boeing 747 in Namibia on Friday and arrived in India on Saturday morning. Next they were to be flown on a military aircraft to their new home, Kuno National Park, in a lush river valley in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
“It is the only large mammal that India has lost,” said S.P. Yadav, secretary of India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority. “It is our moral and ethical responsibility to bring them back,” he said.
The plan to return cheetahs to India dates almost to the time of their extinction in the country, and it represents a bold and uncertain attempt to ensure the animals’ survival by redistributing them from Africa, where their population is in sharp decline.
The project also reflects the muscular nationalism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is bringing to bear India’s growing wealth and scientific knowledge. The cats’ entry was timed for Mr Modi’s 72nd birthday, which he planned to celebrate Saturday by witnessing their release into an enclosure at Kuno.
Conservationists are preparing to fly 12 more cheetahs, the world’s fastest land mammals, to India in October.
There are two subspecies of cheetahs. Those that once roamed in Asia were declared extinct in India in 1952 and are now found only in Iran. Since then there have been efforts to reintroduce these cats to India’s savannahs.
Initially the plan was to bring in cheetahs from Iran but now they are being moved from southern African countries.
“For a genetically viable population in India in the long-term you need at least 500 individuals, so every year we will send eight to 12 animals, to top them up, to increase numbers, to bring in new genetics until they have a viable population,” Vincent van der Merwe, manager of the Cheetah Metapopulation Initiative, said..
Indian officials say the move will aid global cheetah conservation efforts since their range in Africa is limited.
The plan is for the cats to be kept in large enclosures in central Indian forests, protected from other predators like leopards or bears, to give them time to get used to their new home.
The enclosures have prey — like deer and antelope — which scientists hope the cheetahs will hunt. After a few months of close monitoring, the cheetahs will be radio-collared and released.
The southern African countries of South Africa, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe still have significant cheetah populations and are expected to play a significant role in their reintroduction in India following the first shipments this year.
South Africa’s cheetah population is expanding at a rate of about 8 per cent annually, allowing the country to move about 30 of the cats to other game reserves within South Africa and to export some to other countries, Mr van der Merwe said.
Conservationists say Mozambique’s Zambezi River delta had a significant cheetah population which was drastically reduced by rampant poaching and because lions and leopards preyed upon the smaller cats. — Agencies