The eight leopards from Namibia, southwest Africa, survived a journey of nearly 9,000 kilometers to India. Among them are five females of good reproductive age, says Laurie Marker, director of the Namibian Cheetah Conservation Fund. In their crates, the animals were first flown from Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, to the Gwalior Air Force Base in Madhya Pradesh, where they were flown by helicopter.
“The cheetah is very adaptable”
India has been toying with the idea of reintroducing big cats for decades. Since cheetahs could not be bred in captivity, another plan was needed. Although visually identical, the southern African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) is genetically slightly different from the subspecies of the Asian cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus).
The only remaining wild Asian species of leopards lives in Iran, with a population of less than 30 animals. Indian wildlife expert MK Rangitsinh explained that these animals are too small to discount the animals for resettlement. In Africa, on the other hand, about 6,600 of the total population of 7,100 cheetahs worldwide still live. Marker says there is a good chance they will be able to adapt to very similar living conditions in India.
“A team of experts from all over the world worked on the reintroduction,” Marker says. “The subspecies are very similar and the cheetah is very adaptable. The benefits outweigh the risks.” Marker explains that it’s not just about introducing cheetahs to India, but also about creating another viable population that would help conserve globally degraded species.
In the beginning, the animals live in a false wilderness
Cheetahs are meant to stay in the five to six square kilometer prey enclosure that is released upon arrival, says PK Verma, a national park official. More than 200 gazelles, gazelles and antelopes have been brought to the area to ensure there is enough prey for the new predators.
Cheetahs were originally declared extinct in India in 1952, and were previously widespread in the central and southern parts of the country. But then they were hunted and their habitat and prey disappeared more and more. India has now banned hunting and capturing wild animals unless there is a scientific reason to do so or the animals threaten human life.
More imports already planned
Gala says the park where the leopards are housed has room for about 20 cheetahs in total. India plans to import dozens of other cheetahs from South Africa in the coming years, which can then live in other national parks as well. The fact that about half of them will die as a result of this resettlement is not unusual.
Marker also points out that success is not necessarily immediate. “It will take some time to recover the viable population, maybe five to ten years,” she says. However, the project is a “very important step in the right direction”.