74 years after last cheetah died, India gets ready to receive eight from Namibia

Updated on Sep 14, 2022 10:48 AM IST

Cheetahs, one of the oldest big cat species with ancestors dating back to about 8.5 million years, were once widely dispersed throughout Asia and Africa but now occupy less than nine per cent of their historic range

An India-bound African cheetah undergoes health examination. (PTI)
An India-bound African cheetah undergoes health examination. (PTI)
ByJayashree Nandi

A team of Namibia’s Cheetah Conservation Foundation (CCF) will travel with eight cheetahs from southern Africa to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park on Saturday, culminating the 12-year coordination of the organisation dedicated to saving the cheetah in the wild with the Indian authorities and scientists for the translocation project even as challenges remain.

The cheetahs will be flown first to Jaipur and then to Kuno. They have been vaccinated, fitted with satellite collars, and are currently in isolation at CCF Centre in Otjiwarongo. The cheetahs were selected on the basis of an assessment of health, wild disposition, hunting skills, and ability to contribute genetics that will result in a strong founder population.

The plane which will carry the cheetahs to India.(CCF)
The plane which will carry the cheetahs to India.(CCF)

In a statement on Wednesday, CCF said the mission to move the cheetahs will begin on Friday with their transfer to the airport in Namibia’s capital Windhoek. “After a brief ceremony to acknowledge Namibia’s donation and the significance of the mission, the cheetahs will be loaded onto a private B747 jet.”

India’s last cheetah died in Koriya in what is now Chhattisgarh in 1948. The animal was declared extinct in India four years later.

READ | Cheetahs to travel on empty stomach from Namibia to India

Cheetahs, one of the oldest big cat species with ancestors dating back to about 8.5 million years, were once widely dispersed throughout Asia and Africa. They now occupy less than nine per cent of their historic range. Fewer than 7,500 cheetahs remain in the wild.

The statement said the project will be one of the ways to protect the cheetah population globally. “Cheetahs are threatened by human-wildlife conflict, illegal wildlife trade, poor sperm quality, and lack of genetic diversity, but one of their greatest challenges to survival is the loss of habitat together with loss of prey base. The shrinking of their natural habitat is due to a combination of increasing human populations and climate change impact.”

READ | 8 cheetahs from Namibia to be translocated to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno

CCF founder Laurie Marker said the conservation of the species requires global cooperation. “For more than 12 years, I have consulted with the government of India and their scientists on how to bring cheetahs back to the landscape, and now, it is happening. As a conservationist, I am thrilled, and as CCF’s leader, I am exceptionally proud of the work of our CCF reintroduction team. Without research and dedication to cheetah conservation, this project could not take place.”

Marker called for the need to create permanent places for cheetahs to save cheetahs from extinction. “India has areas of grassland and forest habitat, which are appropriate for this species. The government has a progressive mindset and believes in the concept of introducing cheetahs to encourage healthy biodiversity. We think they are setting a marvellous precedent with Project Cheetah. However, the process of bringing a species back that has gone locally extinct is a huge challenge. The cheetah needs massive amounts of support to survive, and it is my hope that we, as conservationists, can provide what the species requires for success,” said Marker.

READ | Madhya Pradesh govt preps for grand welcome for India's new cheetahs

The statement said the group of eight iconic, spotted big cats is making history as the first to be translocated from southern Africa to Asia to create a new metapopulation. It added cheetahs once roamed freely in India but were extirpated over 70 years ago. “Namibia, the country that has traditionally had the greatest density of wild cheetah, is donating the first eight individuals as part of a larger, multi-year agreement to help conserve the species through India’s Project Cheetah.”

It said the time has come to introduce a strong founder population of African Cheetahs in India that will be supplemented annually.

Cheetahs require vast home range territory as they live in low densities. Kuno National Park has the carrying capacity for a maximum of 21 cheetahs. It can be enhanced by including the remaining part of the Kuno Wildlife Division (1,280 square kilometers) through prey restoration. Once restored, the larger landscape can hold approximately 36 cheetahs, CCF experts said.

The transcontinental is the first of its kind on any continent and the eight cheetahs will be the founders of a new population. The Explorers Club, an American international multidisciplinary society with the goal of promoting scientific exploration, has designated the mission as a “Flagged Expedition”.

Marker and Hamish Harding, the chairman of Action Aviation that has arranged a customised Boeing 747-400 aircraft for the mission, will carry Explorers Club Flag number 118 on the mission. The flag will be archived at the club’s headquarters in New York City along with documentation detailing the scientific expedition.

Ravi Chellam, the CEO of Metastring Foundation and Biodiversity Collaborative coordinator, said the cheetahs will find it challenging just to settle down after their long journey and have to get used to the new site, especially to an unfenced existence. “It is likely that the cheetahs would also find it challenging to hunt chital deer which is the most commonly occurring prey species in Kuno.”

Chellam said deer will be a novel prey type as it is something that the cheetahs would not have even encountered in Africa. “The biggest challenge I see is the size of Kuno National Park which is only 748 square kilometers.” He added cheetahs exist in very low densities of about 1/100 square kilometers even in very well-protected and prey-rich habitats. “This means that a much larger area of at least 5,000 square kilometres, which is well protected with a high density of prey is required for a viable population to establish itself. Currently, India does not have such a site.”

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