Over 70 years after they went extinct, eight cheetahs landed in India on Saturday (September 17) from Namibia. The big cats were flown in on a modified passenger B-747 Jumbo Jet, which took off from Hosea Kutako International Airport in Windhoek and landed in Madhya Pradesh’s Gwalior. The cheetahs will be released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the occasion of his birthday today, at Kuno National Park.
On board the jet were eight Namibian wild cheetahs, five females and three males. Here’s what you need to know about the relocation project.
A plan to reintroduce cheetahs in India that was endorsed in 2009 by then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh was shot down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The idea was revived in 2017 by the Narendra Modi government, and the SC cleared the move in 2020 “on an experimental basis”.
This is the first time in the world that a large carnivore will be relocated from one continent to another.
According to the Action Plan For Introduction of Cheetah in India envisaged by the Environment Ministry, the long-term success of the multi-crore project will depend on whether the feline species become an integral part of the ecosystem and maintain natural rates of survival — 70% for adults and 25-40% for cubs.
The long-term goal will be to develop a free-ranging, breeding founder population cheetahs. But for that, the cheetahs will need to establish a home range at Kuno National Park, the 748 sq km large landscape which remains unfamiliar to the sub-species of cheetah despite sharing similarities in climate and overall ecosystem with its distant continent.
However, on short-term, the government has laid out its criteria for success of the first phase of project, which includes achieving at least 50% survival of the introduced cheetahs for the first year, establishment of home range by cheetahs in Kuno so it can successfully reproduce in the wild, ensure that some wild born cheetah cubs survive to at least over a year, and the first generation breeds successfully. The project will be deemed unsuccessful in case the re-introduced cheetahs do not survive or fail to reproduce in five years.
One of the biggest challenges is the threat that cheetahs face from the native population of more strong and aggressive, competing predator species – leopards, striped hyenas, jackals which are far higher in number and can outcompete them. While cheetahs are normally known to avoid conflicts and use their lightning speed to protect themselves from other ferocious carnivores, they are likely to be at a disadvantage in an alien habitat, not native to them.
Apart from conflicts for territory and prey, their cubs may face direct risk from other predators. This is why most of the cheetahs in African landscapes are found to be roaming outside of the protected reserves, away from stronger predators.