Next week, a group of cheetahs are finally expected to make a long journey from Africa to their new home in a sprawling national park in India. The world’s fastest land animal is poised to make a comeback in India, more than half a century after it became extinct in the country.
This is the first time a large carnivore is being moved from one continent to another and being reintroduced to the wild. “It is exciting, it’s challenging. It’s a big feather in India’s cap to restore a lost treasure,” says Yadvendradev Jhala, dean of the Wildlife Institute of India, and one of the experts tasked with the effort.
Where are the cheetahs coming from?
At least 16 cheetahs are coming to India from South Africa and Namibia, home to more than a third of the world’s 7,000 cheetahs. More than half of the world’s cheetah population is found in these two countries and Botswana.
In South Africa, cheetahs are found in three different places: a small and declining number are free-roaming, living in unprotected areas; a larger, stable population live in large national parks; and the remainder in smaller groups in fenced – mostly privately owned – protected reserves.
The India-bound cats have been mostly picked up from the reserves, where they breed well. There are some 500 adult cheetahs in 50-odd such reserves in South Africa.
Veterinarians fired tranquilizer darts from moving helicopters to capture some of these cheetahs. “Some of them were slightly wilder,” muses Vincent van der Merwe, a cheetah conservationist in South Africa who has been involved in the mission.
After capture, the tranquilized cats were microchipped, injected with antibiotics to prevent infection, rehydrated with drips, had their blood taken for DNA, and then were put in crates and flown to quarantine facilities.
The cheetahs, including more than six females, are young animals in prime breeding age. “They are cats who have already left their mothers and are fully capable of surviving themselves,” says Mr. Merwe.
How challenging is the long journey?
Experts say wild cheetahs can be difficult to transport as they get stressed by closeness to humans and confinement in crates.
The cheetahs bound for India will have to endure a long flight on a cargo plane from Johannesburg to Delhi and then onwards by road or helicopters to Kuno national park in Madhya Pradesh state, their new home.
The cats will be immobilized with tranquilizers on the day of the journey and put in metal crates in the plane along with wildlife specialists, including a vet.
Once in the crates, the cheetahs will be given an antidote to wake them up from the anesthetic, but also a mild tranquilizer to keep them awake and calm during the journey. “This has made it much easier to transport these animals,” says Adrian Tordiffe, a veterinary wildlife professor at the University of Pretoria.
Cheetahs have been transported long distances in the past. Mr. Merwe says he transported a female cheetah in the back of a vehicle on a 55-hour-road journey from South Africa to Malawi. “They are very adaptable animals.”
Will the cheetahs be fed during the air journey?
Cheetahs feed once – usually 15kg of meat – every three days. In South Africa, for example, cheetahs are mainly fed common warthogs, although they prefer medium-sized antelopes.
Feeding a cheetah before a long journey can be risky and lead to the cat falling sick and choking on its vomit. The India-bound cheetahs will not be fed for two days before the journey, says Mr. Merwe.
What will the cheetahs do after they arrive here?
The cats will be initially quarantined for at least a month in a small fenced camp – some 700sq-km of the Kuno national park. This is not for breeding but to anchor them to a central area. “All cats have homing instincts, and they are inclined to walk back home to where they came from. We break that by putting them up in holding facilities for one or two months,” says Mr. Merwe. After that, the cheetahs will be released in the 115,000-hectare national park.
How does India plan to sustain a cheetah population?
Some Indian conservationists remain skeptical of the idea, saying that most of the country’s former cheetah habitats are shrinking because of pressure on land.
Officials like Mr. Jhala are more optimistic and believe the Kuno park has sufficient space, ample prey, and less pressure of the human population, all key to the cheetah’s survival.
India is looking at a capacity population of 20 cheetahs in Kuno national park. In five to six years, the country plans to import and locate 50 to 60 cheetahs in half-a-dozen reserves and parks across the country and move the animals around for genetic and demographic diversity.
Why is this a globally important project?
Experts say this is a key experiment in the conservation of the cheetah. There are only about 12 Asiatic cheetahs left in the wild in Iran. A recent genetic survey revealed that these animals are highly inbred.
“It is, in my view, ridiculous to have any hope of reviving that little isolated population from such a small base. Trying to conserve subspecies like that is a waste of effort and has little chance of success. It is better to focus on the global population even if that means allowing some level of hybridization, says Prof Tordiffe.
“The cheetah reintroduction into India is a bold step in terms of conservation and one that is desperately needed if we are to have any chance of saving this species from extinction.”
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