Cheetahs to set foot in India after 70 years
PM Narendra Modi, who turns 72 today, will release the animals into an enclosure spread over 10km around 10.45am in the presence of Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and wildlife experts.
Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno Palpur National Park (KNP) geared itself for the arrival of eight cheetahs from Namibia on Saturday morning, marking a historic return of the predator seven decades after it went extinct in India. Forest officials put last-minute touches on arrangements, releasing animals in the wild for the big cats to feed on, inspecting enclosure, security arrangements, and instructing the local population on appropriate behaviour.
On his 72nd birthday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will release the animals into an enclosure spread over 10km around 10.45am on Saturday in the presence of chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and wildlife experts.
“India is one of those countries which believe in undoing ecological wrongs. A mistake should be rectified. Cheetahs became extinct in India due to overhunting. We have decided to bring the large carnivore back. This ecological wrong is being undone,” environment minister Bhupender Yadav said.
The eight cheetahs — five female between 2 and 5 and three males between 4.5 and 5.5 years of age — are en route India in a Boeing 747-400 aircraft from Namibia’s capital Windhoek. They were scheduled to depart from Windhoek at 6pm(India time) on Friday and land in Gwalior at around 7am, ending an 11-hour-long flight that will count among the world’s longest translocation of wild animals.
“From Gwalior, cheetahs will be flown to KNP in an Indian Air Force (IAF) heavy-lift Chinook helicopter,” principal chief conservator of forest (PCCF) wildlife JS Chauhan said.
The cheetahs will reach Kuno — around 150km from Gwalior — at around 9 am, said SP Yadav, secretary, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the agency coordinating the Cheetah Translocation Project.
Five helipads have been constructed in Palpur, 18km inside the national park, to receive the cheetahs. “The successful trial run of shifting the cheetahs from Gwalior’s Maharajpur Airforce base to Kuno was carried out on Thursday,” an official in the MP forest department said.
Yadav said PM Modi will release three cheetahs into a 50x30 meter enclosures where they will be quarantined for a month. “The other five will be released by forest officials,” he said.
Veterinary wildlife specialist Adrian Tordiffe, who is accompanying the animals, said they were fed on Thursday and will not eat again until they reach India. “When we land in India, we will just transfer them from the plane to the Air Force helicopters and will take them directly to Kuno,” he said.
On Friday, the forest department released spotted deer, a four-horned antelope, sambar, and baby nilgai in the enclosure. “The cheetahs eat once in two to three days. So, after their arrival in Kuno, they can kill the prey on Saturday or Sunday,” said a forest official, requesting anonymity.
The cheetah was completely wiped out from India due to excessive hunting and shrinking grasslands, its natural habitat. The last cheetah was killed in Koriya district of Chhattisgarh in 1947 and it was declared extinct in 1952. Efforts to bring the animal — the smallest of the big cats and the fastest land mammal — have been decades in the making, beginning with Indira Gandhi in the 1970s but have always run into international diplomatic or legal hurdles, until now.
“The animals will initially be released in 6 sq km predator-free enclosure after a few months can be released in the forest. The 6 sq km enclosure is divided into nine parts and it is highly secured with solar electric fencing to keep leopards and other wild animals away,” said JS Chouhan, chief wildlife warden of MP.
He added that the movement of cheetahs and their behaviour will be monitored through CCTV cameras installed across the enclosure and through radio collars installed around their neck. To prevent any hunting, police dogs will be deployed outside the enclosures, he said.
Experts from the Cheetah Conservation Foundation, Namibia, and the Wildlife Institute of India will be stationed in Kuno for a month to monitor rehabilitation of the animals in a new habitat with thorny bushes and other predators such as leopards.
Among the local residents, there was happiness and pride. “ We are waiting with bated breath to welcome the cheetahs,” said Kamal Singh, a resident of Sesaipura village located next to KNP.
Bharat Sharma, a resident of Karahal village, said he hoped the return of the cheetahs will boost tourism and help the local economy. “We are confident that KNP and Sheopur will be known the world over and it will generate a lot of employment opportunities for the people, especially young people.”
KNP was selected as the habitat by a Supreme Court-mandated expert committee in January 2021, constituted to implement the Cheetah Translocation Project.
In 2009, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh tried to get cheetahs from Africa and even appointed an expert panel to select habitats for them. However, the apex court stayed the project, citing objections by some wildlife experts. In 2020, the top court cleared the project and appointed an expert committee headed by former Indian Administrative Services officer MK Ranjitsinh to select the habitats. The committee preferred KNP over Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh because it was big enough for cheetahs to roam around and hunt freely, away from any human interference.
In July, 2022, India signed an agreement with Namibia to import cheetahs for five years with the first tranche of eight cheetahs. Earlier, the cheetahs were expected to arrive by Independence Day, August 15, but was delayed because the selection of cheetahs for translocation took time.
Under the Cheetah Translocation Project, the government aims to establish a meta-population of the animal in the country, allowing it to perform the role of an apex predator and spread within its historical range, the Union environment ministry had said in a statement at the time of signing agreement with Namibia.
India expects 12 cheetahs from South Africa in Kuno by November. A team of experts visited KNP on September 5 and inspected the facilities created for translocation of cheetahs.
On Saturday, state home minister Narottam Mishra announced that all the police patrol vehicles will now be called cheetah mobiles to mark the translocation. When the cheetahs are released, he said, the vehicles will blow sirens across the state to welcome them.
Some environmentalists have expressed concern that it would be difficult to shift the cheetahs from an enclosure to the wild in Kuno, which has a good population of bigger predator leopard. They also cited studies to say that cheetahs kept in enclosures have breeding problems. However, government experts countered saying that the cheetah can easily adjust to a new environment, and cheetahs and leopards have co-existed in India as well as Africa. They also said that the cheetah population in Africa has grown at the rate of 7-8% annually, indicating that breeding is not a problem.