South Africa cheetahs to India
(Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images)
  • Asiatic cheetahs were declared extinct in India in 1952 and numerous reintroduction efforts since have stalled.
  • But an Indian Supreme Court ruling in 2020 has cleared the way for Cheetahs to return to India, with a South African expert recently giving a nod of approval, to Kuno National Park.
  • Eight cheetahs, five males and three females, donated by South Africa's Endangered Wildlife Trust are expected to arrive at the park in November.
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India declared cheetahs extinct in 1952 and has spent the last few decades preparing a reintroduction plan which has finally been implemented. Eight cheetahs donated by South Africa's Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) are now expected to arrive at India’s Kuno National Park in November.

India's last-known wild cheetah died in 1947, with the species being declared extinct just five years later. Asiatic cheetahs were common in the region until the early 20th century. Numbers dwindled due to the widespread trapping and taming of cheetahs which were used to hunt for sport. Under British Colonial rule, cheetahs in India were classified as vermin, with rewards offered for the culling of the species.

Desertification and deforestation further decimated the cheetah's natural habitat, finally pushing the species to extinction.

Plans to reintroduce the cheetah to India were touted as early as early as 1955 but only gathered real momentum in 1970 when Iran – the only country supporting the endangered Asiatic species – was approached to supply the animals. After decades of negotiations, the plan to source Asiatic cheetahs from Iran was eventually dropped in 2010.

Sourcing cheetahs from Africa, however, remained a viable option for India with offers coming from Kenya, Namibia and, more recently, South Africa.

Protracted legal battles between conservationists and India's Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), which debated the genetic differences between the two species and the guidelines for the translocation of alien wildlife, delayed the process from more than eight years.

India's Supreme Court, in January 2020, gave the go ahead to reintroduce Southern African cheetahs following a final application by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

The following year, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) published the results of a comprehensive feasibility assessment which analysed the suitability of six parks and sanctuaries. Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, roughly 500km south of the capital, Delhi, was ultimately agreed upon as the site for cheetah relocation by the MoEF, NTCA, and WII.

The final decision, announced by Alok Kumar, India's principal chief conservator of forest wildlife, comes just days after EWT national Cheetah Metapopulation manager Vincent van der Merwe visited Kuno National Park.

"The expert, (Van der) Merwe, said Kuno has a perfect grassland and prey base for cheetahs," explained the district's divisional forest officer, PK Verma, to the Hindustan Times on Saturday. "We have started preparation for translocation."

The semi-arid park, which occupies an area of 748 square kilometres, has an abundance of wild cattle, chital – also known as spotted deer – and wild boar which make good prey for the arriving cheetahs. The park is also favoured due to the minimal improvements needed to make the area suitable for the relocated cheetahs.

In total, five male cheetahs and three females will be donated by EWT.

The Indian government has allocated R26.5 million for the relocation project which will go towards fencing, forest management and the transportation of the cheetahs from South Africa.

(Compiled by Luke Daniel)

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