Representative image: Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Eight cheetahs from Namibia were released in Madhya Pradesh's Kuno National Park on Saturday as part of India's initiative to reintroduce the species after it was declared extinct in 1952.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the cheetahs into the Kuno National Park as part of a programme to bring back the cheetahs to the country. To mark the occasion, the prime minister said, "Today, the Cheetahs have come back to our land after decades. On this historic day, I want to congratulate all Indians and also thank the government of Namibia. This could not have been possible without their help."
Here's a look at what the project entails and what it means for the future of cheetahs in India:
How were they brought to India?
The cheetahs were brought on a Boeing 747 and transferred to an Indian Air Force Chinook helicopter to be brought for release at the Kuno National Park. Experts who accompanied them on their journey said they were lightly sedated.
Dr Laurie Marker who was on the flight with the animals was quoted by NDTV as saying, "The cats are under very mild sedation, but they are not tranquilised. They are all looking great."
What happens to them after their release?
The cheetahs will have to quarantine for a month in compartments built especially for them. A report in the BBC said that a team will monitor them and satellite radio collars will help them keep a tab on their movements.
Why is this project being conducted?
Project Cheetah aims to bring back the species to India by reintroducing the species to the wilderness of Madhya Pradesh. Experts say bringing back the animals could help restore the "evolutionary balance".
In a press statement by Namibia's Cheetah Conservation Fund, which has worked with the Indian government on this project, Jhala Yadvendradev, dean of the Wildlife Institute of India and principal scientist for the Project Cheetah, said, "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. 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, and will uplift the livelihoods of poor forest-dwelling communities."
The plan, it seems, began way back in 2009, when the UPA government had said it planned to bring cheetahs back to India.
The Independent had quoted Jairam Ramesh, who was then India's environment minister, as telling the Parliament, "The cheetah is the only animal to have been declared extinct in India in the last 1,000 years... We have to get them from abroad to repopulate the species here." This was in July 2009.
The government and conservationists had reportedly identified areas in which they could be reintroduced. A BBC report from September 2009, had said that Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh were four states in which seven sites had been identified.
The Wildlife Trust of India had conducted a study and after they brought out a report, the Ministry of Environment and Forests identified Kuno-Palpur and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh and Shahgarh Landscape in Jaisalmer in Rajasthan as sites where the cheetah could be reintroduced, The Hindu reported in 2010.
What are the details of the cheetahs?
Of the eight cheetahs, three are male and five are female, all of them Namibian cheetahs. These are the first eight to be introduced to Indian wildlife. All of them are between two to five-and-a-half-years-old.
They have been specifically chosen for their hunting skills and general disposition so that they are able to multiply in numbers.
What do critics say?
While those working on the project have said that this was not really how conservation should be done. Independent conservation scientist Arjun Gopalaswamy said this stop-gap approach will not help to conserve the animals. He told National Geographic, "This sort of stop-gap arrangement involves this very expensive and complex process of continuously translocating individual animals, essentially trying to mimic nature... In my view, it's quite distant from what cheetah conservation is all about."
Ravi Chellam, the CEO of Metastring Foundation and coordinator of Biodiversity Collaborative called it a "vanity project" that would not help increase the population of cheetahs in India. In an article in Outlook titled, "Why Introducing African Cheetahs To India Is A 'Vanity Project'" Chellam wrote, "This initiative to get African cheetahs is neither science-based nor a national conservation priority. Unfortunately, this will significantly distract from higher priority conservation issues like the much-delayed lion translocation."