Cheetahs return to India after 70 years of absence

  • Eight cheetahs brought to India from Namibia
  • Animal disappeared from India 70 years ago
  • Bid to bring cats back could burn environmental credibility
  • Some Conservationists Call It an Unrealistic Vanity Project
  • Challenges include space limitations, rival hunters

LONDON/NEW DELHI, Sept 17 (Reuters) – Eight radio-collared African cheetahs emerge out of the grasslands of Kuno National Park in central India after a 5,000-mile (8,000-km) journey from Namibia, which has drawn criticism. from some conservationists.

The arrival of big cats – the fastest land animal on Earth – coincides with the 72nd birthday of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who on Saturday released the first cat in the park. It is the culmination of a 13-year effort to restore a species that disappeared from India some 70 years ago.

The high-profile project is the first time wild cheetahs have been taken across continents for release. This has raised questions from scientists who say the government should do more to protect the country’s own struggling wildlife.

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The cheetahs – five females and three males – arrived after a two-day plane and helicopter trip from the African savannah, and are expected to spend two to three months in a 6-sq-km (2-sq-mile) enclosure . Park in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

If all goes well with the Kuno adapting, the cats will be left to run through 5,000 square km (2,000 sq mi) of forest and grassland, teeming with leopards, sloth bears and striped hyenas Will share the scenario.

12 more cheetahs are expected to join the Indian population from South Africa next month. And as India gathers more money for the 910 million rupees ($11.4 million) project, largely financed by state-owned IndianOil, it hopes to eventually see the population grow to around 40 cats.

SP Yadav of the National Tiger Conservation Authority said the cheetah’s extinction in India in 1952 was the only time the country had lost a large mammal species since independence.

“It is our moral and ethical responsibility to bring it back.”

But some Indian conservation experts have called the effort a “vanity project”, which ignores the fact that the African cheetah – a subspecies similar but distinct from the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah – is now found only in Iran. Goes – is not native to the Indian subcontinent.

And with India’s 1.4 billion human population jockeying for land, biologists worry that cheetahs won’t have enough room to roam without being killed by poachers or people.

India joined the United Nations pledge last year to protect 30% of its land and ocean area by 2030, but today less than 6% of the country’s area is protected.

Bringing back the cheetah is “our effort towards environment and wildlife conservation,” Modi said.

spotted one

While cheetahs today are often associated with Africa, the word “cheetah” comes from the Sanskrit word “chitraka”, meaning “spotted”.

At one time, the Asiatic cheetah was widespread across North Africa, the Middle East, and across India. During the era of the Mughal Empire, domesticated cheetahs served as royal hunting companions, following the hunt on behalf of their masters.

But later the hunters turned their weapons on the cheetah itself. Today, only 12 remain in the arid regions of Iran.

Project Cheetah, which began in 2009 under the government of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, gives India a chance to right a historical wrong and strengthen its environmental reputation.

Yadav said India’s success in managing the world’s largest population of wild tigers proves that it has the credentials to bring back cheetahs.

However, even among African countries, “there have been some[relocations]for cheetahs in areas with large or no fences that have been successful,” said Kim Young-Overton, cheetah program director at Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization .

To set the cheetahs up for success, officials are relocating villagers from Bagcha near Kuno. Officials are also vaccinating domestic dogs in the area against diseases that can be transmitted to cats.

And wildlife officials have audited the park’s prey, ensuring there are enough spotted deer, blue bulls, wild boar and porcupines to sustain the cheetah’s diet.

IndianOil has pledged over 500 million rupees ($6.3 million) for the project over the next five years.

Controversial cats

Some Indian scientists say that modern India presents challenges that animals had not previously faced.

A cheetah needs a lot of space to roam. The 100 sq km (38-sq-mi) area may support six to 11 tigers, 10 to 40 lions, but only one cheetah.

Once the cheetahs move beyond the unfenced boundaries of the kuno, “they will be driven out by domestic dogs, by leopards, within six months,” said wildlife biologist Ullas Karanth, director of the Center for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru.

In response “Or they will kill a goat, and the villagers will poison them”.

Poaching fears hampered another project that included a 2013 Supreme Court order to move some of the world’s last surviving Asiatic lions from their only reserve in the western Indian state of Gujarat to Kuno. Now the cheetahs will occupy that place.

“The cheetah 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. Asiatic lions are a single population. A simple glance at the situation will reveal which species should be preferred.”

Other conservation experts say the promise of restoring cheetahs to India is well worth the challenges.

“Cheetahs play an important role in grassland ecosystems,” said hunting through grasslands and preventing overgrazing, said conservation biologist Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund leading the Namibian side of the project. .

Marker and his partners will help monitor the settlement, hunting and breeding of cats for years to come.

Modi called on people to be patient as cats adjust. “For them to be able to make Kuno National Park their home, we have to give these cheetahs a few months.”

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Reporting by Gloria Dickey in London and Tanvi Mehta in New Delhi; Editing by Katy Daigle, Mike Collett-White and Frank Jack Daniels

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principals.

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