Eight Namibian cheetahs, five females and three males, arrived in India on Saturday as part of a project to reintroduce the animals to the country. In 1952, Asiatic cheetahs were declared extinct in India. They became extinct primarily because of habitat loss and hunting.
The animals, aged between two and five and a half, were moved from a game park in Namibia, where they’ve lived since they were born, and were boarded on a chartered Boeing 747 for an 11-hour flight. The Namibian cheetahs have been fitted with a satellite collar to monitor their movements.
They will initially be kept in a quarantine enclosure before being released in the open forest areas of the Kuno National Park, a wildlife sanctuary 320 kilometres (200 miles) south of New Delhi. The park is also home to leopards, sloth bears, tigers and hyenas.
Next month, India plans to fly over another twelve cheetahs from South Africa. The country hopes to eventually have around 40 cheetahs. The cheetah reintroduction project costs around 910 million rupees ($11.4 million) and is financed mainly by the state-owned Indian Oil Corporation.
“These cheetahs have come as guests, unaware of this area. For them to be able to make Kuno National Park their home, we’ll have to give these cheetahs a few months,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said.
Some conservationists have criticized the project, which fully ignores the fact that the African cheetahs are not native to India. They warn that the animals may struggle to adapt to the Indian habitat.
And with India’s 1.4 billion human population competing for land, biologists worry cheetahs won’t have enough space to roam without being killed by people or other predators.
Many leopards live in Kuno National Park, and conservation scientist Ravi Chellam said that cheetah cubs could fall prey to them and other animals in the park.
Under the government’s current cheetah plan, “the prospects for a viable, wild and free-ranging population of cheetahs getting established in India is bleak,” Cellam told news agency AFP.
“The habitats should have been prepared first before bringing the cats from Namibia,” Chellam added. “It is like us moving to a new city with only a sub-optimal place to stay. Not a nice situation at all.”
“Cheetahs are very adaptable, and (I’m) assuming that they will adapt well into this environment,” said Laurie Marker, founder of the Namibia-based charity Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), which has helped transport the animals. “I don’t have a lot of worries.”
Cheetahs are one of the oldest big cat species, with ancestors dating back about 8.5 million years. They once roamed widely throughout Asia and Africa in great numbers, said CCF. But today, only around 7,000 remain, primarily in the African savannas.
Their survival is threatened mainly by the loss of natural habitat and loss of prey, hunting and climate change.