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Is it worth the risk? Cheetahs return to India after 70 years


Cheetah populations are declining in most countries. The exception to this is South Africa, where cats have run out of space. Experts hope that India’s forests can offer these cats a space to thrive. A dozen cheetahs are currently quarantined in South Africa and are expected to arrive in Kuno National Park soon. Earlier this month, four cheetahs captured from game reserves in South Africa were flown to Mozambique, where the cheetah population has plummeted.


Some experts are more cautious.

“Cascading and unintended consequences” could occur if a new animal is introduced to the mix, said Mayuh Chatterjee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

For example, the boom in the tiger population in India has led to increased conflicts with people living in the same space. As for cheetahs, there are questions about how their presence will affect other carnivores, such as striped hyenas, or even prey such as birds.

“The question remains: how well is it done,” he said.

Ravi Chelam, a wildlife biologist and conservation scientist based in the southern city of Bengaluru, said they would face the risk of other predators, including wild and domestic dogs.

“Currently, there is simply not enough habitat in India to support a free-ranging cheetah population,” Chelam said. “The introduction of African cheetahs is not a national conservation priority, so it is not worth the risk.”

The first eight cheetahs from Namibia will be quarantined in a national park and monitored for a month to ensure they do not carry pests. They will then be released into a larger enclosure in the park to help them acclimate to their new environment. The enclosures contain natural prey – such as spotted deer and antelope, which scientists hope they will learn to hunt – and are designed to prevent the entry of other predators such as bears or leopards.

The cheetahs will be collared and released into the national park in about two months. Their movements will be regularly tracked, but for the most part they will be on their own.

The reserve is large enough to hold 21 cheetahs, and if they establish territories and breed, they could spread to other interconnected grasslands and forests, where scientists say there could be another dozen cheetahs.

There is only one village with a few hundred families still living on the outskirts of the park. Indian officials said they would be relocated soon and any loss of livestock to the cheetahs would be compensated. The project is estimated to cost $11.5 million ($17.13 million) over five years, including $6.3 million to be paid by state-owned Indian Oil.

[India] just doesn’t have enough habitat to support a free cheetah population…not worth the risk.

Ravi Chelam, wildlife biologist and conservation scientist

The movement from continent to continent took decades. The cats that originally roamed India were Asiatic cheetahs, genetically distinct cousins ​​of those living in Africa and whose range extended to Saudi Arabia.

India had hoped to import Asiatic cheetahs, but only a few dozen have survived in Iran, and the population is too vulnerable to move.

Many obstacles remain, including the presence of other predators in India, such as leopards, which can compete with cheetahs, said geneticist Pamela Burger of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna.

“It would be better to keep them where they are than to make efforts to create new sites, the outcome of which is questionable,” she said.

Dr. Adrian Tordif, a South African wildlife veterinarian associated with the project, said the animals need help. He added that conservation efforts in many African countries have not been as successful, unlike in India, where strict laws have preserved the big cat population.

“We cannot sit back and hope that species like the cheetah will survive on their own without our help,” he said.


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