KUNO National Park, India – The jaguar once prowled India among lions, tigers and leopards. They appear in ancient Hindu texts and in cave paintings, and are woven into centuries-old tapestries. Mughal Emperor Akbar kept 1,000 cheetahs in his cage.
But for 75 years – its entire existence as an independent nation – India has been without the cheetah, the fastest land animal in the world.
That changed on Saturday, when eight cheetahs arrived India, after a flight from Africa, begins a great untested experiment for the world: can a population of top predators come back to life in a place where it has been hunted to extinction. long ago or not.
The big cats boarded a Boeing 747 in Namibia on Friday and arrived in India on Saturday morning. Next, they will be flown by military helicopter to their new home, Kuno National Park, in a lush river valley where golden butterflies hover over miles of greenery in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
“It is the only large mammal that India has lost,” said SP Yadav, secretary of the National Tiger Reserve of India.
“It is our moral and ethical responsibility to bring them back,” he said.
The plan to bring cheetahs back to India almost happened at the time of their extinction in the country, and it represents a bold and unlikely attempt to ensure the animal’s survival by redistribute them from Africa, where their population is in sharp decline.
The project also reflects the muscular nationalism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is bringing about India’s growing wealth and scientific knowledge. The cats’ entry is scheduled to coincide with Modi’s 72nd birthday, which he plans to celebrate on Saturday by witnessing their release into a soft enclosure at Kuno.
A huge convoy of politicians, supporters and representatives of Oil of India – as well as thousands of police guarding the prime minister’s security – poured down the single-lane highway into the park. backcountry for the event.
The cheetah is dated about 8.5 million years, and these animals have been found in large numbers throughout Africa, Arabia, and Asia. They currently live only in Africa, unlike a small population in Iran. Their population is estimated at just under 8,000, halving in the past four decades.
With habitat loss and other hazards leaving the cheetah vulnerable to extinction in Africa, many conservationists argue that some of these animals should be resettled.
The Indian government will spend about $11 million, with support from the Oil Corporation of India, on the project over the next five years. The eight cheetahs are a gift from the Namibian government. The plan was to move the cheetahs from southern Africa until India reached a population of about 40.
Dr Adrian Tordiffe, a wildlife veterinarian in South Africa who is helping prepare the second litter of 12 jaguars that India hopes to receive, said: “We should think about it. The global cheetah population as a single dismembered population needs to be conserved next month.
In addition to cheetahs in South Africa’s national parks, some 500 of these animals are managed in privately owned reserves. As their numbers increased, they were exported to other African countries.
Dr Tordiffe said: “If animals are not relocated and resettled in this way, sanctuaries will become overcrowded and predator populations will suffer.
“What cheetahs need more than anything is protected space,” he added. “India offers a great opportunity for cheetahs in protected space conditions.”
However, some experts still wonder if India has enough of that for cheetahs to thrive.
Kuno National Park is said to be the second home of some of the last remaining Asian lions. Renowned big cat experts say the area is more suitable for animals living together in pride than cheetahs, in ideal conditions spanning thousands of square miles.
Much work has been done to restore the park’s ecology to the lions, including paying residents of about two dozen villages to relocate. But then the state government of Gujarat, where all Asiatic lions live, opposed moving more there, and the effort stalled. A plan to introduce cheetahs from Namibia was blocked by the Supreme Court of India in 2013.
However, two years ago, the court ruled that cheetahs could be imported on a trial basis. At the time, some scientists say, inadequate preparations were being made for the new inhabitants. The cheetah’s arrival was delayed in part because wildlife officers struggled to capture and move leopards in the area.
“This project is putting the cart before the horse,” said Ullas Karanth, a conservation zoologist at the Wildlife Research Center in Bengaluru, also known as Bangalore.
The animals “will have a high mortality rate and continuously provide new cheetah species,” he added. “I don’t see this free-living cheetah in India ‘wrapped up’. It’s more of a PR exercise.”
Yadvendradev V. Jhala, principal of the Wildlife Institute of India and chief scientist of the cheetah project, admits that the mortality rate of cheetah pioneers in India may be higher than average. . Currently, only about 30% of cheetahs survive to adulthood.
However, Dr Jhala and other Indian scientists believe that bringing back a top predator would be good for the entire ecosystem. And they point to the country’s success in helping another big cat thrive. For 12 years, India doubled its number of tigersto nearly 3,000 in 2018.
The idea that India should reproduce its leopards arose in 1952, five years after independence from Britain, when India had its first wildlife council meeting in Mysore.
At the time, experts suggested importing animals from Iran. When that did not materialize, the idea of translocation was not raised again until a symposium in 2009 organized by the Wildlife Trust of India in Rajasthan.
“It’s a very old idea,” says Dr. Jhala. He added: “Science and the art of introduction have emerged recently, and now India has the economic capacity and scientific know-how.”
Laurie Marker, an American zoologist and executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Foundation, said cheetahs from Namibia consisted of five females and three males between the ages of 2 and 5. project.
Two of the cheetahs are brothers. One female, Savannah, beloved at the cheetah fund for her luminescent eyes, was picked up from a farm in northwestern Namibia. That female and another of the same age are often found together in the same barn.
After undergoing a month-long quarantine, the cheetahs will be released in Kuno, a 289 square mile protected area. They will be fitted with satellite collars, but India’s parks are not fenced, so they can also roam the surrounding woodland, which covers 2,300 square miles.
The males will be released first, with the females initially kept in a 3.7 square mile barn to anchor the males to the park. Dr Marker said that hunting, feeding and other behaviors of the populations would be closely monitored before they were released into the wild.
Kuno was chosen because of its similarity in climate, rainfall and habitat to private reserves in southern Africa. Prey, including deer, elk, wild boar and antelope, is abundant.
At the edge of the park are a handful of villages but there are few industrial sites, schools or hospitals. Hari Lal, an illiterate farmer, said government officials promise jobs as hotels and restaurants increase for the tourists that cheetahs are expected to bring. But the day before they arrived, only one project, a 16-room hotel modeled after a castle, was being built by hand, brick by brick.
While cheetahs often keep their distance from humans, the state forestry department has drawn on a network of cheetah influencers “mitras” – Hindi for friends – to sensitize villagers in the presence of the cheetahs. they. Among their recruits is a notorious but influential mobster, Ramesh Singh Sikarwar, whose rap covers 91 cases of murder and kidnapping.
During his years as a bandit, he lived in the Kuno jungle and said he often protected wildlife from poachers.
Wearing a Kuno National Park baseball cap and ammunition belt and holding a rifle outside his ranch near the reserve, he said he was prepared to stop poachers once again. “I have become a cheetah mitra, and I will not allow them to hunt,” he said, adding, “If they disobey, I will shoot them.”