© Reuters A cheetah rests at the CCF center in Otjiwarongo, Namibia, September 12, 2022, after being prepared to be transferred to India.
By Gloria Dickey and Tanvi Mehta
LONDON/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – After traveling 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) from Namibia to their final destination in the grasslands of Kuno National Park in India, eight African cheetahs have drawn criticism from some conservationists.
The arrival of the big cats – the fastest land animal on Earth – coincides with the 72nd birthday of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who released the first cat into the park on Saturday. It is the culmination of a 13-year effort to restore a species that disappeared from India 70 years ago.
The high-profile project marks the first time wild cheetahs have been transcontinental. It has raised questions from scientists who say the government should do more to protect the country’s endangered wildlife.
The cheetahs – five females and three males – arrived after a two-day plane and helicopter journey from the African savanna, where they are expected to spend two to three months. Park in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
If all goes well with their arrival in Kuno, the cats are released to roam the 5,000 square kilometers (2,000 square miles) of forest and grassland, sharing the landscape with tigers, polar bears and spotted hyenas.
Another 12 cheetahs are expected to join the fledgling Indian population from South Africa next month. And as India raises more money for a 910 million rupee ($11.4 million) project funded primarily by state-owned Indian Oil, it hopes to eventually increase the population to 40 cats.
National Tiger Conservation Officer S P Yadav said the extinction of the cheetah in India in 1952 was the only time the country had lost a large mammal species since independence.
It is our moral and ethical responsibility to restore it.
But some Indian conservationists have called the effort a “futility project”, ignoring that the African cheetah – similar to but different from the critically endangered Asian cheetah – is not native to the Indian subcontinent.
And as India’s 1.4 billion people jockey for land, biologists worry that cheetahs won’t have enough room to roam without being killed by poachers or humans.
India joined the United Nations last year. It has pledged to protect 30% of its land and oceans by 2030, but today less than 6% of the country’s territory is protected.
Bringing back the cheetah is “our effort to protect the environment and wildlife,” Modi said.
While cheetahs are now mostly associated with Africa, the word “cheetah” comes from the Sanskrit word “chitraka” which means “the seen”.
At one time, the Asiatic cheetah was widespread in North Africa, the Middle East, and throughout India. During the Mughal Empire, circumcised cheetahs served as royal hunting companions, searching for hunters on behalf of their masters.
But the poachers later turned their weapons on the cheetah. Today, only 12 of them remain in the arid regions of Iran.
In the year The Cheetah Project, launched by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government in 2009, appears to be an opportunity for India to right a historical wrong and strengthen its environmental image.
India’s success in managing the world’s largest population of wild tigers proves its ability to bring back the cheetah, Yadav said.
However, even among African countries, “cheetahs have successfully migrated into large or unfenced areas,” said Kim Young-Overton, director of the cheetah program at Panthera International, a wild cat conservation organization.
Authorities are evacuating villagers from Bagcha to Kuno to prepare the cheetah for success. Authorities have been vaccinating domestic dogs in the area against diseases that could spread to the cats.
Wildlife officials audited the park’s prey and found enough deer, blue bulls, wild boars and pigs to support the cheetah’s diet.
Indian Oil has pledged more than 500 million rupees ($6.3 million) to the project over the next five years.
Some Indian scientists believe that modern India presents challenges not previously faced by animals.
A single cheetah needs a lot of space to roam. A 100 square kilometer (38 square mile) area supports six to 11 tigers, 10 to 40 lions, but only one cheetah.
Wildlife biologist Ulas Karanth, director of the Wildlife Research Center in Bengaluru, said after the cheetahs crossed the unfenced borders of Kuno, “within six months they would be mauled by domestic dogs, tigers.”
“Or they will slaughter goats and the villagers will poison them,” he replied.
Fear of hunting A 2013 Supreme Court order stymied another project to relocate Asiatic lions that survived the apocalypse from their only reserve in the western Indian state of Gujarat to Kuno. Now, the Cheetahs dominate that spot.
“The cheetah cannot be India’s burden,” said wildlife biologist Ravi Chalam, science officer for Asiatic lions. “These are African animals in dozens of habitats. The Asiatic lion is a single population. The simple eyeball of the situation shows which species should be prioritized.”
Other conservationists say the promise to bring the cheetah back to India is a challenge.
“Cheetahs play an important role in grassland ecosystems,” said Laurie Marker, a conservation biologist who leads the Namibian side of the project by protecting grassland animals and preventing overgrazing.
Marker and her collaborators will help monitor the cats’ migration, hunting and reproduction in the coming years.
Modi asked people to be patient while the cats settle down. “We need to give these cheetahs a few months to make Kuno National Park their home.”