LONDON/NEW DELHI – Eight radio-collared African cheetahs enter the grasslands of central India’s Kuno National Park, their final destination after an 8,000km journey from Namibia that has been criticized by 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 (September 17). It’s the culmination of a 13-year effort to recover a species that disappeared from India some 70 years ago.
The high-profile project marks the first time wild cheetahs have been moved across continents to be released. It has raised questions from scientists who say the government should do more to protect the country’s own struggling wildlife.
The cheetahs – five females and three males – arrived from the African savanna after a two-day flight and helicopter journey and are expected to spend two to three months in a 6-square-kilometer enclosure at the interior park in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
If all goes well with their acclimatization to Kuno, the cats are released to roam through 5,000 square kilometers (2,000 sq mi) of forest and grassland, sharing the landscape with leopards, sloth bears and striped hyenas.
Another 12 cheetahs are expected to join the young Native American population from South Africa next month. And as India raises more funds for the 910 million rupee ($11.4 million) project, funded largely by state-owned Indian Oil, it hopes to eventually grow the population to around 40 cats.
SP Yadav of the National Tiger Conservation Authority said the cheetah extinction in India in 1952 was the only time since independence that the country had lost a large mammal species.
“It is our moral and ethical responsibility to bring it back.”
However, some Indian conservation experts called the effort a “vanity project” that ignores the fact that the African cheetah — a subspecies similar to the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah but separated and now found only in Iran — is not found in the Indian subcontinent is based.
And with India’s 1.4 billion people fighting over land, biologists worry cheetahs won’t have enough space to roam without being killed by predators or humans.
India joined a UN commitment last year to conserve 30 percent of its land and sea by 2030, but today less than 6 percent of the country’s territory is protected.
The cheetah’s return “is our commitment to protecting the environment and wildlife,” Modi said.
While cheetahs are now mostly associated with Africa, the word “cheetah” comes from the Sanskrit word “chitraka,” meaning “the spotted one.”
At one point, the Asiatic cheetah was widespread in North Africa, the Middle East, and throughout India. During the Mughal era, domesticated cheetahs served as royal hunting companions, hunting prey on behalf of their masters.
But hunters later turned their guns on the cheetah itself. Today, only 12 remain in Iran’s arid regions.
Project Cheetah, launched in 2009 under the government of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, appeared to offer India a chance to right a historic wrong and boost its reputation as a green company.
India’s success in managing the world’s largest population of wild tigers proves it has the credentials to bring back cheetahs, Yadav said.
But even between African countries, “there have been few[translocations]of cheetahs into large or unfenced areas that have been successful,” said Kim Young-Overton, cheetah program director at Panthera, a global wildcat conservation organization.
In order to make the cheetahs successful, the authorities relocate villagers from Bagcha near Kuno. Officials have also vaccinated pet dogs in the area against diseases that could spread to the cats.
And wildlife officials have been auditing the park’s prey, ensuring there are enough spotted deer, blue bulls, wild boar and porcupines to sustain the cheetahs’ diet.
Indian Oil has pledged more than 500 million rupees ($8.8 million) to the project over the next five years.
Cats haunted by controversy
Some Indian scientists say that modern India presents challenges that animals did not face in the past.
A single cheetah needs a lot of space to roam. A 100 square kilometer area can support six to eleven tigers, ten to 40 lions, but only one cheetah.
Once the cheetahs leave Kuno’s unfenced borders, “they are knocked out by domestic dogs and leopards within six months,” said wildlife biologist Ullas Karanth, director of the Bengaluru Center for Wildlife Studies.
“Or they kill a goat and the villagers poison it,” in response.
Fears of poaching hampered another project in which the Supreme Court ordered in 2013 that some of the world’s last surviving Asiatic lions be relocated to Kuno from their only sanctuary in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Now the cheetahs are taking over this room.
“Cheetahs cannot be India’s burden,” said wildlife biologist Ravi Chellam, a scientific authority on Asiatic lions. “These are African animals found in dozens of places. The Asiatic lion is a single population. A simple look at the situation shows which species must take precedence.”
Other conservation experts say the promise of bringing cheetahs back to India is worth the challenges.
“Cheetahs play an important role in grassland ecosystems,” herding prey through grasslands and preventing overgrazing, said conservation biologist Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, who leads the Namibian side of the project.
Marker and her staff will help oversee the settlement, hunting and reproduction of the cats for years to come.
Modi urged people to be patient while the cats adapt. “In order for them to make Kuno National Park their home, we need to give these cheetahs a few months.”