Cheetahs Arrive in India After 70 Years of Local Extinction

As part of an ambitious reintroduction plan, conservationists flew in eight of the big cats from Namibia

Close-up of cheetah
A cheetah at Erindi Private Game Reserve in Namibia Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund

Cheetahs have been extinct in India for 70 years, but the big cats could soon be making a comeback in the South Asian nation. Over the weekend, the country welcomed eight cheetahs from Namibia as part of a new initiative that aims to reintroduce the spotted felines to the country.

The animals arrived Saturday to Kuno National Park, where they will spend the next month under observation in quarantine. After that, wildlife officials plan to release them into the 285-square-mile national park, where they hope the cats will thrive and reproduce. Prior to the trip, veterinarians vaccinated the animals and kept them in isolation; they also fitted them with satellite collars to track their movements.

Five females and three males between the ages of two and six years old made the historic journey on a chartered jet from Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, to Gwalior, a city in India’s Madhya Pradesh state. From there, crews loaded them onto a helicopter for the final leg of their trip to the national park. Veterinarians and other experts monitored the animals while they were in transit and “everything went very smoothly,” according to a tweet from the Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund.

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, was on-site for the cats’ arrival and tweeted that “a long wait is over.”

Cheetahs have historically roamed free throughout India, but when a local king shot three in 1947, he killed what are believed to have been the last few that remained in the country. Five years later, experts officially declared cheetahs extinct in India. They are the only large mammal to disappear from the country since its independence in 1947, reports the Washington Post’s Niha Masih.

Worldwide, scientists believe there are roughly 6,500 cheetahs remaining in the wild representing five subspecies. Two of the subspecies are critically endangered, while the other three are vulnerable, per the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Cheetahs, the fastest land animals in the world, are facing extinction because of habitat loss and poaching. They’ve disappeared from most of Africa and Asia, and today they live primarily in southern and eastern Africa and Iran, per the WWF.

Vets examining a cheetah
Veterinarians and wildlife experts examine a cheetah in Namibia Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund

The weekend’s reintroduction of eight of the big cats is just the beginning. Over the next five years, India plans to release 50 cheetahs into various national parks, according to a January statement from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Other proposed locations for the cats include the Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary, the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary, the Shahgarh Bulge and the Mukundara Tiger Reserve.

The ambitious plan is expected to cost $11.5 million, with the state-owned company IndianOil chipping in $6.3 million, report Aniruddha Ghosal and Sibi Arasu for the Associated Press (AP).

“The goal of our project is to reverse the tide for cheetahs—to slow, then stop their decline—while at the same time increasing the biodiversity and health of Indian ecosystems,” says Jhala Yadvendradev, a zoologist and the dean of the Wildlife Institute of India, in a statement. “Bringing back a top predator restores historic evolutionary balance, resulting in cascading effects, leading to better management and restoration of wildlife habitat, for the benefit of all species.”

Still, not everyone fully supports India’s cheetah reintroduction mission. Some biologists worry that the initiative shifts the focus away from other, more pressing conservation needs, such as relocating Asiatic lions to help save them from extinction. Experts are also concerned about the potential for cheetah-human conflict, as well as how the presence of cheetahs will affect the populations of other animals, especially prey.

Others fear that the eight initial cheetahs will not have enough territory to roam, or that they won’t have enough to eat, despite the country’s efforts to boost the amount of prey in Kuno National Park.

“If, naturally, you build up the population of the prey base and then you bring in a new species or predator, it’s sustainable,” Faiyaz Khudsar, a conservation biologist, tells CNN’s Zoe Sottile and Tara Subramaniam. “[But if you bring in a] prey base from somewhere else... I don't know which direction it will go after six months or a year.”