Sat. Oct 1st, 2022


Eight Namibian cheetahs have been airlifted to India as part of an ambitious project to reintroduce the big cats after they were driven to extinction there decades ago, officials and veterinarians said.

The wild cheetahs were moved by road from a game park north of Namibia’s capital Windhoek on Friday to board a chartered Boeing 747 dubbed the “Cat plane” for the 11-hour flight.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will welcome them on Saturday, on his 72nd birthday.

He will open the gates of Kuno National Park, a new sanctuary created for cats, 320 km (200 miles) south of New Delhi.

The 750 square kilometer (290 sq mi) protected park was chosen as a home for its abundance of prey and grasslands.

The project is the world’s first intercontinental translocation of the cheetah, the world’s fastest land animal, said India’s High Commissioner to Namibia, Prashant Agrawal.

“This is a historic, global first – a game changer,” he said. “We are all the more excited because it is happening in the 75th year of India’s independence.”

Critics have warned that Namibian cheetahs may find it difficult to adapt to the Indian habitat and could clash with the significant number of leopards already present. But the organizers are not worried.

One of the cheetahs in a transport cage in Otjiwarongo, Namibia, before being flown by helicopter to India
One of the cheetahs in a transport cage at the Cheetah Conservation Trust in Otjiwarong, Namibia, before being airlifted to India. Photo: Dirk Heinrich/AP

“Cheetahs are very adaptable and [I’m] assuming they will adapt well to this environment,” said Dr Laurie Marker, founder of the Namibia-based charity Cheetah Conservation Fund, which was central to the project’s logistics. “So I don’t have much to worry about.”

The project was more than a decade in the making. The initial discussion began in the 1990s, she told AFP.

India was once home to the Asiatic cheetah, but it was declared extinct there by 1952. The critically endangered subspecies, which once roamed the Middle East, Central Asia and India, is now found only – in very small numbers – in Iran.

New Delhi has been working to reintroduce the animals since 2020 after the Supreme Court announced that African cheetahs, another subspecies, could be resettled in a “carefully selected location” on an experimental basis.

Five females and three males, aged between two and five and a half years, will be fitted with a satellite collar.

They are a donation from the government of Namibia, one of the few countries in Africa where this creature survives in the wild.

Vets draw blood from one of the Namibian cheetahs in preparation for relocation
Vets draw blood from one of the Namibian cheetahs in preparation for relocation. Photo: Cheetah Conservation Fund/Reuters

Negotiations are underway for a similar translocation from South Africa, a government official said Friday, and veterinarians suggest 12 cats could be relocated.

Cheetahs have become extinct in India primarily due to habitat loss and hunting for their distinctive spotted coat.

It is widely believed that an Indian prince, Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo, killed the last three recorded cheetahs in India in the late 1940s.

One of the oldest species of big cats, whose ancestors date back to about 8.5 million years ago, cheetahs once roamed Asia and Africa in large numbers, the Cheetah Conservation Fund said.

But today there are only about 7,000 of them left, mostly in the African savannahs.

The cheetah is globally listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. It is “critically endangered” in North Africa and Asia.

Their survival is threatened primarily by the reduction of natural habitat and loss of prey due to human hunting, land development for other purposes and climate change.



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