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Home SCIENCE Cheetahs return to India after 70 years

Cheetahs return to India after 70 years

Eight big cats from Namibia made the long journey Saturday on a chartered cargo flight to the northern Indian city of Gwalior as part of an ambitious and hotly contested plan to reintroduce cheetahs to the South Asian country.

They were then moved to their new home: a sprawling national park in the heart of India where scientists hope the world’s fastest land animal will once again roam.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the cats into his compound on Saturday morning. The cats climbed out of their cage, tentatively at first as they continually explored their new surroundings.

“When the cheetah runs again…grasslands will be restored, biodiversity will increase and ecotourism will be boosted,” Modi said.

Cheetahs were once widespread in India, becoming extinct in 1952 from hunting and habitat loss. They remain the first and only predator to disappear since India’s independence in 1947. India hopes that the importation of African cheetahs will help efforts to conserve the country’s threatened and largely abandoned grasslands.

There are fewer than 7,000 adult cheetahs left in the wild worldwide, now inhabiting less than 9% of their original range. Shrinking habitat, due to rising human populations and climate change, is a major threat, and India’s grasslands and forests could offer “suitable” homes for the big cat, said Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, a advocacy and research group that helps bring cats to India.

“To save cheetahs from extinction, we need to create permanent places for them on land,” he said.

Cheetah populations in most countries are declining. An exception to this is South Africa, where cats have run out of space. Experts hope that the Indian forests can offer these cats room to thrive. There are currently a dozen cheetahs in quarantine in South Africa, and they are expected to arrive in Kuno National Park soon. Earlier this month, four cheetahs captured from reserves in South Africa were transferred to Mozambique, where the cheetah population has dramatically declined.

Some experts are more cautious.

There could be “cascading and unforeseen consequences” when a new animal is brought into the mix, said Mayukh Chatterjee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

For example, the boom in the tiger population in India has led to more conflicts with people sharing the same space. With cheetahs, there are questions about how their presence would affect other carnivores like striped hyenas, or even prey like birds.

“The question remains: how well is it done,” he said.

The initial eight Namibian cheetahs will be quarantined at a facility in the national park and monitored for a month to ensure they do not carry pests. They will then be released into a larger enclosure in the park to help them get used to their new surroundings. The enclosures contain natural prey, such as spotted deer and antelope, which scientists hope will learn to hunt, and are designed to prevent other predators such as bears or leopards from entering.

The cheetahs will be fitted with tracking collars and released into the national park in about two months. Their movements will be routinely tracked, but for the most part, they will be alone.

The reserve is large enough to house 21 cheetahs, and if they were to establish territories and breed, they could spread to other interconnected grasslands and forests that can support another dozen cheetahs, according to the scientists.

There is only one town with a few hundred families still residing on the fringes of the park. Indian officials said they would be moved soon and any livestock losses due to the cheetahs would be compensated. The project is estimated to cost $11.5 million over five years, including $6.3 million to be paid by state-owned Indian Oil.

Continent-to-continent relocation has been decades in the making. The cats that originally roamed India were Asiatic cheetahs, genetically distinct cousins โ€‹โ€‹of those that live in Africa and whose range extended as far as Saudi Arabia.

India had hoped to bring Asiatic cheetahs, but only a few dozen survive in Iran and that population is too vulnerable to move.

Many obstacles remain, including the presence of other predators in India, such as leopards, which can compete with cheetahs, said conservation geneticist Pamela Burger of the Vienna University of Veterinary Medicine.

“It would be better to keep them where they are now than to go out of their way to create new sites where the outcome is questionable,” he said.

dr Adrian Tordiffe, a South African wildlife veterinarian associated with the project, said the animals need help. He added that conservation efforts in many African countries have not been as successful, unlike in India, where strict conservation laws have preserved big cat populations.

“We can’t sit back and expect species like the cheetah to survive on their own without our help,” he said.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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