African cheetahs airlifted to India after going extinct there more than 70 years ago

African cheetahs airlifted to India after going extinct there more than 70 years ago

NEW DELHI — When a local king in central India shot dead three cheetahs in 1947, he killed what were believed to be the last of these creatures in the country, and they were declared extinct in India five years later.

On Friday, eight of these wild cats, the world’s fastest land animals, were flown from Namibia in Africa to India as part of an effort to reintroduce them into the country.

The global population of cheetahs is between 6,500 to 7,100, according to a list of threatened animals from the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Africa is home to most of the cheetahs, which are extinct across Asia, except in Iran. The are disappearing in large part because of poaching, shrinking habitats and a loss of prey.

“To save cheetahs from extinction, we need to create permanent places for them on Earth. India has areas of grassland and forest habitat, which are appropriate for this species,” said Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, an international nonprofit that has helped the Indian and Namibian governments with the relocation effort.

Under the elaborate plan, five female cheetahs and three males, between the ages of 2 and 6 years, were flown on a chartered Boeing 747 jet from Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, to Gwalior in central Madhya Pradesh state. (Organizers had previously said the cheetahs would be first sent to northern India.) The animals were then moved in a chopper to nearby Kuno National Park, where they will be housed, said SP Yadav, the head of India’s tiger conservation organization overseeing the move.

For the first month, the animals will remain quarantined in an enclosure while monitored for disease and adaptation. Once they have acclimatized, they will be released into the 285 square miles of the national park.

“This is the only large mammal which India has lost since independence. It is our moral and ethical responsibility to restore it,” said Yadav.

India has seen an increase in its tiger and leopard populations over the years, government data shows. The number of tigers doubled to nearly 3,000 between 2006 and 2018, despite a decline in the forest area they occupy.

Yadav said India’s goal is to develop a viable population of cheetahs in fenced-in areas. India’s plan, which costs an estimated $11 million, aims to bring in about 50 cheetahs over the next few years from South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Some wildlife experts in India are skeptical.

Ravi Chellam, a wildlife biologist and conservation scientist based in Bangalore, said the project’s scientific foundations are “weak” and its conservation claims are “unrealistic.”

Cheetahs, even in the best African habitats, exist in very low densities of about one animal per 38 square miles. That means Kuno National Park would only be able to accommodate seven to eight cheetahs, he said.

“How will a self-sustaining, wild and free-ranging population of cheetahs be able to establish themselves in India when there is no suitable habitat of sufficient size for them to do so?” asked Chellam, chief executive of Metastring Foundation, a technology company working in the field of environment and public health.

While he does not oppose the relocation, he said, the project would redirect resources away from India’s more urgent conservation needs, such as the transfer of Asiatic lions from forests in the state of Gujarat, the only such population of this subspecies left in the world . But the Environment Ministry and state governments responsible have not acted on the 2013 Supreme Court order on the relocation of the lions, numbering a few hundreds, to the park in Kuno, where the cheetahs are being released.

“India’s wildlife action plan that guides conservation over a 15-year period prioritizes native species that need a high degree of protection,” said Chellam. “We are in 2022, and there are no signs of lions being translocated.”

Preparations for the cheetah’s arrival have been in full swing. On Sept. 17, his birthday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveled to the national park to release the animals. Hundreds of locals, who have been tapped to spread awareness about the animals, were in attendance. Local media reported that besides watch towers fitted with CCTV cameras, drone squads will keep an eye out for poachers.

Reviving cheetah populations can be challenging. In South Africa, for example, cheetah expert Vincent van der Merwe has worked to increase their population from 217 on 41 reserves in the country to more than 500 cheetahs on 69 reserves in four African countries. This successful approach, he said, has relied on fenced-in reserves as well as preventing people from moving into protected areas where the cheetahs live and cheetahs from coming into areas where humans predominate and attacking livestock.

Cheetahs are not the only animals that have been relocated. The Giraffe Conservation Foundation, dedicated to the conservation and management of giraffes in more than a dozen countries in Africa, has overseen successful relocations within that continent. Stephanie Fennessy, the group’s executive director, said that moving giraffes is very tricky given their size and physiology.

“It takes time for the animals to settle in and start reproducing in their new environments. Post-translocation monitoring is therefore an important part of the process,” she said.

Anant Gupta in Delhi contributed to this report.

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