The cheetah is a flagship grassland species; whose conservation also helps in preserving other grassland species in the predator food chain
Seven decades after it was reported extinct in India, the cheetah will be reintroduced in the country, on Saturday. Under ‘Project Cheetah’, the Central government is “re-introducing” eight African cheetahs – five females and three males — at the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh. To mark this arrival, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will host the goodwill ambassadors from the ‘land of the brave’ on 17 September — his 72nd birthday.
What is the Project Cheetah?
Project Cheetah was approved by the Supreme Court of India in January 2020 as a pilot programme to reintroduce the species to India. The concept of bringing the cheetah back was first put forth in 2009 by Indian conservationists, along with Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), a not-for-profit organisation, headquartered in Namibia, which works towards saving and rehabilitating the big cat in the wild.
In July 2020, India and the Republic of Namibia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), with the Namibian government agreeing to donate the eight felines to launch the programme. This is the first time that a wild southern African cheetah will be introduced in India, or anywhere in the world.
Why are cheetahs being reintroduced?
The major purpose of the project is to develop healthy meta-populations in India that allow the cheetah to execute its functional role as a top predator, the government had said earlier this year.
The cheetah is a flagship grassland species; whose conservation also helps in preserving other grassland species in the predator food chain.
The homecoming plan
In 1947, Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya, Surguja, in what is today known as Chhattisgarh, reportedly shot dead the last three recorded Asiatic cheetahs.
According to the reintroduction plan, the cheetahs will be placed in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, starting with Madhya Pradesh. The PM will release three cheetahs at Kuno, while the rest will be released in phases.
Project coordinators said the spotted cats will be wearing satellite radio collars for geolocation tracking. Each cheetah will also be assigned a dedicated monitoring team.
Close to 50 cheetahs will be introduced into the wild over the next five years.
The cheetahs will be flown in on a Boeing 747. A total of Rs 96 crore has been allotted for the project, said officials at the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC). To support the project, Indian Oil has provided an additional Rs 50 crore.
Meanwhile, the Kuno national park has been equipped with the required facilities according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund. The staff has been trained, and larger predators have been moved away, said officials.
Public awareness campaigns have also been formalised for the local communities who will be termed Cheetah Mitras with a local mascot named too– “Chintu Cheetah”.
With Kuno national park being home to lions and leopards, concerns have been raised over the coexistence of reintroduced cheetahs with the existing species. Chances of elimination due to conflict are high, wildlife experts have pointed out.
The reintroduced cats could also face increased vulnerability due to their small size and climatic and ecological differences between their home country and India.
This, however, has not dimmed the excitement of wildlife enthusiasts who are waiting to catch a glimpse of the world’s fastest animal running across the Indian grasslands.