EIGHT AFRICAN cheetahs — five females and three males — will board a chartered Boeing 747 cargo flight from the Namibian capital of Windhoek on September 16, and arrive at the Jaipur airport the next morning, after an over 10-hour-long flight, the environment ministry said on Monday.
From Jaipur, they will take a 42-minute helicopter ride to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh where a temporary helipad has been constructed. The cheetahs are between four and six years old. Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said all preparations for the inter-country translocation of the cheetahs were complete.
Kuno National Park was chosen for the project since it had already been prepared a decade ago for translocation of the Asiatic Lion from Gir National Park. While this translocation never took place, prey for lion was established at Kuno — with sambhal, cheetal, etc — and the park was sanitised to receive the lion, which also inhabits in landscapes similar to that of the cheetah.
“Sheopur district (where Kuno is located) has similar rainfall levels, temperatures, altitude and conditions as that of South Africa and Namibia. I recently visited the park to oversee the arrangements. The aim behind the translocation is not only to be able to re-introduce the cheetah in India – it was declared extinct in 1952 – thereby restoring India’s natural heritage, but also to develop a cheetah metapopulation that will help in the global conservation of the animal,” he said.
“There are now approximately 7,000 cheetahs globally – South Africa has the largest population at about 4,500. We expect to receive the next batch of 12 cheetahs from South Africa soon,’’ he said. Over the next five years, the Indian government will acquire 8-10 cheetahs annually to establish a breeding cheetah metapopulation of 35-40 in the country, said officials.
India was to get 20 African cheetahs this year – eight from Namibia and 12 from South Africa. According to ministry officials, while all the preparations from the Indian side were over, the South African government’s assent was still awaited. Like their counterparts in Namibia, the cheetahs to be sent from South Africa have already been prepped for the journey, including extensive health check-ups and blood work for detection of diseases, vaccination, and radio collaring.
For the cheetahs arriving from Namibia later this week, the plan is not to tranquilise them for the journey.
They will be fed two-three days before they begin the journey, and will be accompanied in the aircraft by a team of three veterinarians – an Indian, a Namibian and a South African. The cheetahs will be transported in cages measuring 114 cm X 118 cm X 84 cm.
On September 17, when the cheetahs will be released at the Kuno National Park by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, they will first be kept in a quarantine enclosure, measuring 1,500 square metres, for about a month to not only ensure their adaptation to the new environment, but to also check that they are not carrying any diseases. They will be monitored closely during this period, after which they will be released into a bigger enclosure of 6 square kilometres for the remaining period that it takes them to adapt.
“In this bigger enclosure, where they will have prey and be able to hunt, we will closely monitor not only their health, but also how they are adapting to Kuno, hunting, feeding, excreta etc. Once this is found to be satisfactory, they will be released into the 740 sq km Kuno National Park,’’ said S P Yadav, member secretary, National Tiger Conservation Authority.
While the park itself is 740 sq km, the cheetahs will have access to the larger forested and semi-forested region outside the park of 5,000 sq km, said officials. Of the 25 villages that were in the area earlier, 24 were relocated in preparation for the translocation of the Asiatic Lion from Gir National Park in Gujarat. Only one village, Bagcha, with a population of 148 families, remains on the periphery of the park, and its relocation process is underway, said the minister.
“Historically, the cheetah has not been known to attack humans. So we don’t anticipate animal-human conflict in the area. However, they have been known to attack livestock, and we have informed the villagers of this and established cheetah-mitras who will operate as watch-and-ward staff. The cattle and feral dogs in the area have also been vaccinated,’’ said Yadav.
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He said the Madhya Pradesh government has already put in place an “adequate compensation’’ for any possible conflict between the cheetahs and villagers. The park itself has a healthy prey base of chital, nilgai, chowsingha, langur, peafowl, hares and feral cattle. Yadav said the cheetah has a wide range of habitats – from semi-arid grassland to coastal scrubs, wooded Savanna, Montane habitat, snow deserts and rugged semi-arid.