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Cheetah to return from extinction in India; experts fly to Namibia

A five-member team comprising of a person each from MoeFCC, NTCA, WII, MP forest department and MP government left for Namibia on Thursday. The team will be discussing the roadmap for cheetah re-introduction and its way forward.

wildlife Cheetah to return from extinction in India; experts fly to Namibia drb
Indore, First Published Feb 17, 2022, 3:06 PM IST

Image: Getty Images

India’s ambitious project of Cheetah reintroduction will finally see the light of day as a five-member team has left for Namibia on Thursday to finalise details on bringing home African cheetahs.

The team comprises of deputy inspector-general of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) Rakesh Kumar Jagenia, inspector-general of National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) Amit Mallick, dean of Wildlife Institute of India (WII) YV Jhala, Madhya Pradesh’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (wildlife) and chief warden JS Chauhan, and MP forest department’s principal secretary Ashok Barnwal.

The team of experts were earlier to leave for Namibia in December last year but got delayed because of the rise in Omicron cases and a ban on international travel. Before that, they were to leave in September 2021 but that visit also got delayed because MP’s Forest Minister Vijay Shah also wanted to go for the visit with the expert team, reportedly.

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The team, being led by NTCA’s Amit Mallick, will be there for a week’s time, and will return to India on February 23. According to Asianet Newsable’s source, the team will meet its African counterparts for the first time. “The purpose for this visit is for the two governments’ representatives to meet for the first time. They will be discussing details about the cheetahs’ translocation to India. Since it is an international translocation project, details about the timeline to bring the cheetahs to India and the pit stops that will be needed to be taken while bringing them may also be discussed on this trip,” said the source.

Once the officials have finalised the details of the project, the cheetahs would then be sent to India where they will find their new home at MP’s Kuno National Park in Sheopur district. But when can cheetahs be expected to arrive here? To this, the source said, “Although there will be clarity on cheetah’s arrival only after once the team returns, the day could come sooner. Minus all the delays caused due to the pandemic, the project has been functioning at a good pace.”

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While it is the first meeting of the two governments in regard to the projects, teams of forest officials from Kuno will also be later sent to Africa. A senior official from the department told this reporter: “Park officials will be sent to Africa for the training. However, details about when will they be sent are not yet known. It will be clear only once the expert team returns from Africa and shares the details of their meeting.”

The cheetah reintroduction project has been lying in limbo for over a decade. The ambitious wildlife project was first thought of in the early 2000s and then proposed in 2009. After all the delays and surveys, the Supreme Court of India gave a green signal to the project in January 2020.


Following the Apex Court’s favourable decision, a team of WII conducted an assessment of six locations – MP’s Kuno, Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in Damoh district, Madhav National Park in Shivpuri district, Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary in Mandsaur district, Rajasthan's Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve and Shergarh Wildlife Sanctuary. Of these places that were assessed in November and December 2020, Kuno was deemed fit for the reintroduction of cheetahs.

The state forest minister, Shah, had said in July 2021 that India will be bringing a total of 20 cheetahs (10 males and females) from South Africa and Namibia. These felines will most likely be reintroduced in phases. He had also said that roughly Rs 75 crore will be spent on the maintenance of 20 cheetahs for a period of five years.

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Preparations done in Kuno for cheetahs: A few suggestions were made by the African counterparts to make changes in Kuno. These were considered by the state forest department. Based on that, thorny trees were removed from the park apart from constructing six watch-towers and a 12-kilometre long fence. While the watchtowers were ready on December 21, work on the fence is still in process. Other than this, palatable grasses such as marble grass, themeda grass, wild legumes, etc have also been introduced in the park.

What made Kuno the choice of home for cheetahs? Since 2006, Kuno National Park was being monitored rigorously as Gujarat’s pride, the Asiatic Lions of Gir were to be translocated here – a project that continues to be pending for years. However, when Kuno was assessed, it was found a perfect match for cheetahs, especially for its landscapes and prey base.

Will African cheetahs co-exist with Asiatic lions in future? The Apex court has asked the Gujarat government to send its Asiatic lions to MP. The idea behind the translocation of Asiatic lions is to save them from in-gene breeding stress as well as any fatality that may wipe off their population since these big cats are found only in Gujarat’s Gir. However, Gujarat is yet to send its lions to MP. However, when the inter-state translocation of Asiatic lions will see the light of the day, they will be brought to Kuno National Park, the place that will soon become home to African cheetahs. According to a senior forest official, both the big cats will co-exist in Kuno.

When brought, cheetahs will be kept in enclosures: Another senior official from the state forest department had previously informed Asianet Newsable that the cheetah reintroduction will take place in phases. The officer had informed that the big cats will first be put in a cheetah enclosure and would be released in the wild only after they have acclimatised to their new environment.

Why is India reintroducing African cheetahs? India, one home to a breeding population of cheetahs, declared the mammal extinct in 1952; it lost it all to hunting which was considered a royal’s game. The last three cheetahs were hunted by Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Sarguja (now in Chhattisgarh) in 1947.

Decades later, when India decided to reintroduce cheetahs, it wanted to bring them from Iran. However, Iran demanded Asiatic lions in return for Asiatic cheetahs. Since the deal did not strike with Iran, India decided upon bringing African cheetahs from South Africa and Namibia.

The Asiatic cheetahs and African cheetahs have a lot of physical differences between them While Asiatic Cheetahs appear to be paler, smaller, have red eyes and more fur, the African cheetahs have a more cat-like appearance and come off more as panthers. In terms of speed, African cheetahs are much faster than Asiatic cheetahs. Despite all the differences, the DNA of Asiatic cheetahs and African cheetahs matches up to 85%.

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