Cheetahs make a comeback in India after 70 years
NEW DELHI (AP) — Seven decades after cheetahs disappeared from India, they are back.
Eight big cats from Namibia made the long journey on Saturday in a chartered cargo flight to the northern Indian city of Gwalior as part of an ambitious and much-contested plan to reintroduce cheetahs to the country of ‘South Asia.
Then they were 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 their enclosure on Saturday morning. The cats emerged from their cage, timidly at first while continually scanning 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 and became extinct in 1952 due to hunting and habitat loss. They remain the first and only predator to become extinct since India’s independence in 1947. India hopes the import of African cheetahs will aid conservation efforts in the country’s threatened and largely neglected grasslands.
There are fewer than 7,000 adult cheetahs left in the world and they now inhabit less than 9% of their original range. Habitat shrinkage, due to human population increases and climate change, is a huge threat and India’s grasslands and forests could provide « suitable » homes for the big cat, says Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, an advocacy and research group that helps bring cats to India.
« To save cheetahs from extinction, we need to create permanent places for them on earth, » she said.
Cheetah populations in most countries are declining. An exception to this is South Africa, where cats have run out of space. Experts hope India’s forests could provide space for these cats to thrive. There are currently a dozen cheetahs in quarantine in South Africa, and they are expected to arrive at Kuno National Park soon. Earlier this month, four cheetahs captured from reserves in South Africa were airlifted to Mozambique, where the cheetah population has declined dramatically.
Some experts are more cautious.
There could be « cascading and unintended consequences » when a new animal is added to the mix, said Mayukh Chatterjee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
For example, a boom in the tiger population in India has led to more conflict with people sharing the same space. With cheetahs, one wonders 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.
Namibia’s first eight cheetahs will be quarantined at a national park facility and monitored for a month to ensure they are free of parasites. Then they will be released into a larger enclosure in the park to help them get used to their new surroundings. The enclosures contain natural prey – like spotted deer and antelope, which scientists hope they will learn to hunt – and are designed to keep other predators like bears or leopards out.
The cheetahs will be fitted with tracking collars and released into the national park in about two months. Their movements will be tracked regularly, but for the most part they will be on their own.
The reserve is large enough to hold 21 cheetahs and if they were to establish territories and breed, they could expand to other interconnected grasslands and forests that could house another dozen cheetahs, scientists say.
There is only one village with a few hundred families still residing on the edge of the park. Indian officials said they would soon be relocated and any loss of livestock to the cheetahs would be compensated. The cost of the project is estimated at $11.5 million over five years, of which $6.3 million will be paid by state-owned Indian Oil.
Relocation from one continent to another took decades to prepare. The cats that originally roamed India were Asiatic cheetahs, genetically distinct cousins to those that live in Africa and whose range extended as far as Saudi Arabia.
India had hoped to bring Asian cheetahs, but only a few dozen survive in Iran and this population is too vulnerable to move.
Many hurdles remain, including the presence of other predators in India like leopards that can compete with cheetahs, said conservation geneticist Pamela Burger of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.
“It would be better to keep them where they are than to strive to create new sites with questionable results,” she said.
Dr Adrian Tordiffe, a wildlife veterinary specialist from South Africa associated with the project, said the animals needed a helping hand. He added that conservation efforts in many African countries have not been so successful, unlike India where strict conservation laws have preserved big cat populations.
« We cannot sit back and hope that species like the cheetah will survive on their own without our help, » he said.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Aniruddha Ghosal and Sibi Arasu, The Associated Press