Cheetahs will return to India for the first time in 70 years, the country’s government announced earlier this week. Officials signed an agreement with Namibia to fly in cheetahs to Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh in Central India for captive breeding. The first eight felines will likely arrive by August 15, reports the Hindustan Times.
India’s Asiatic cheetah population was declared extinct in 1952, due to hunting, habitat loss and food scarcity, writes BBC News’ Nadeem Shad. It’s the only large carnivore thought to have gone extinct in the country, per Al Jazeera. The reintroduction of African cheetahs will coincide with India’s 75th Independence Day celebrations.
“Completing 75 glorious years of Independence with restoring the fastest terrestrial flagship species, the cheetah, in India, will rekindle the ecological dynamics of the landscape,” India’s environment minister Bhupender Yadav tweeted. “Cheetah reintroduction would also greatly enhance local community livelihoods through eco-tourism prospects in the long term.”
But the move is controversial. Conservationists have been fighting for years for the translocation of endangered Asiatic lions into Kuno National Park; India is home to the world’s only population of this subspecies, reported the Guardian’s Kavitha Rao in 2013.
Happy to share that India has signed a historic MoU with Namibia to promote Wildlife Conservation and Sustainable Biodiversity Utilization. The MoU seeks to promote conservation and restoration of cheetah in their former range from which the species went extinct. pic.twitter.com/MNVyw8S2eQ— Bhupender Yadav (@byadavbjp) July 20, 2022
“This is not a conservation priority for India. If introduction of African cheetah is so important why doesn’t it figure in our National Wildlife Action Plan? The Asiatic lion does figure in it. It’s a vanity project,” wildlife biologist and conservation scientist Ravi Chellam tells Hindustan Times. “All the ecological roles and functions claimed as benefits from the introduction of African cheetahs would be more than fulfilled by the translocated lions.”
The hunting of India’s Asiatic lions caused the population to plummet to between 20 and 50 individuals by the early 1900s, reported Amar Grover for The National in 2021. But after conservation efforts, the population stands at 674 as of June 2020, per the publication. The lions have now outgrown the available protected areas in the state of Gujarat, conservationists say, and an epidemic could wipe out the entire population.
In 2013, India’s Supreme Court ruled that Asiatic lions should be translocated to Kuno within six months. It also ruled against a proposal to reintroduce cheetahs into the country. But the translocation never happened—the state government refused to allow the lions to be transferred out of Gujarat, write Jacob Koshy and Suhasini Haidar for The Hindu.
In 2020, the court lifted the stay on the cheetah proposal, allowing the cats to return to the Indian habitat on an experimental basis, per the publication.
The cheetahs will go to Kuno National Park because “a lot of investments had been done in this Protected Area for reintroducing Asiatic lions,” per India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
Cheetahs are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with approximately 6,517 mature individuals left worldwide.