African cheetahs airlifted to India after vanishing more than 70 years ago

NEW DELHI – When a local king in central India shot three cheetahs in 1947, he killed what was believed to be the last such creature in the country, and they were declared extinct in India for five years later.

Eight of these wildcats, the world’s fastest land animals, were airlifted from Namibia in Africa to India on Friday as part of an effort to reintroduce them to the country.

The global cheetah population is between 6,500 and 7,100, according to a list of endangered animals from the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Africa is home to most cheetahs, which have disappeared from all of Asia except Iran. They are largely disappearing due to poaching, shrinking habitats and 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 habitats, which are suitable for this species,” said Laurie Marker, founder of Cheetah Conservation Fund, an international non-profit organization that has assisted the Indian and Namibian governments in their resettlement efforts.

Under the elaborate plan, five female and three male cheetahs, aged 2 to 6, were flown on a chartered Boeing 747 from Namibia’s capital Windhoek to Gwalior in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. (Organizers previously said the cheetahs would be sent to northern India first.) The animals were then moved in a helicopter 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 in quarantine in a pen while being monitored for disease and adaptation. Once acclimated, they will be released into the 285 square miles of the national park.

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

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

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

Some Indian wildlife experts are skeptical.

Ravi Chellam, a wildlife biologist and conservation scientist based in Bangalore, said the scientific basis for the project is “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 could only accommodate seven to eight cheetahs, he said.

“How will a self-sustaining, wild, 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 the 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 divert resources from India’s most pressing conservation needs, such as relocating Asiatic lions from state forests. from Gujarat, the only remaining population of this subspecies in the world. . But the Department of Environment and responsible state governments failed to act on the Supreme Court’s 2013 order to move the lions, numbering a few hundred, to Kuno Park, where the cheetahs are released.

“The Indian Wildlife Action Plan which guides conservation over a 15-year period prioritizes native species that need a high degree of protection,” Chellam said. “It’s 2022, and there’s no sign of a lions transfer.”

Preparations for the Cheetah’s arrival are in full swing. On September 17, his birthday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the national park to release the animals. Hundreds of locals, who were asked to introduce the animals, were present. Local media reported that in addition to watchtowers equipped with CCTV cameras, drone teams will keep an eye out for poachers.

Reviving cheetah populations can be difficult. 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, relied on fenced reserves as well as preventing people from moving into protected areas where cheetahs live and cheetahs from entering areas where humans predominate and attack livestock.

Cheetahs aren’t 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 to this continent. Stephanie Fennessy, the group’s executive director, said moving giraffes is very tricky given their size and physiology.

“Animals take time to settle in and start breeding in their new environment. So post-translocation follow-up is an important part of the process,” she said.

Anant Gupta in Delhi contributed to this report.

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