Around 11.30 am on Saturday morning, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi cranked a lever from a high dais, the door of the special cage slid open and a cheetah — one of the eight that flew down from Namibia —stepped out into its quarantine enclosure, looked around as if to survey its new surroundings before taking a leisurely stroll.
For the first time in 70 years since the species became extinct, India is now home to the cheetah as the big cats landed in Gwalior early Saturday morning, and then made their way to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, their new home.
Of the eight cheetahs, the Prime Minister formally released three — a female in one 50×30-metre enclosure and two males in another — while the others were released later.
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Union Minister for Environment and Forest Bhupendra Yadav were also present on the occasion. As the big cats wandered about in their new enclosure, the Prime Minister, who wore a hat and a half-sleeve wildlife jacket over his kurta, clicked pictures using a DSLR camera.
Earlier, the Action Aviation Boeing 747 cargo plane, which was to transport the cheetahs from Namibia to India, took off from the Hosea Kutako International Airport in the Namibian capital of Windhoek at 5 pm Namibia time on Friday to arrive at the Gwalior Air Force Base at 8 am on Saturday.
Accompanying the cheetahs was an eight-member crew of experts — Wildlife Institute of India (WII) Dean Prof Y V Jhala, who has spearheaded the cheetah translocation operation; Dr Laurie Marker, Executive Director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) who has headed the project on behalf of the Namibian government; Professor Adrian Tordiffe of the University of Pretoria, which has partnered with WII and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) on the project. Also present were two CCF technicians and CCF veterinarian Dr Anna Basto; South African cheetah expert Vincent Van der Werf; along with a veterinarian expert from the Delhi Zoo, Dr Savant Mutthiya. Indian High Commissioner to Namibia Prashant Aggarwal , also accompanied the team.
From Gwalior, the cheetahs were moved into an Air Force helicopter and flown into Kuno National Park, with Union Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia overseeing the operations.
According to forest officials, the eight cheetahs will be fed buffalo meat as per their prescribed diet, with special care being taken to ensure that they have minimum interaction with humans during their month-long stay in the quarantine enclosures. They will later be moved into larger enclosures.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Prof Jhala said that the over-10-hour flight saw hourly check-ups for the cheetahs, who had been fed a day before their journey to India.
Insisting that their transfer to India “is just the beginning” and that the “actual work begins now’’, Jhala said, “The eight cheetahs will be in different bomas (temporary quarantine enclosures to monitor their health) over the next month. They have been housed according to their social units, so a pair of brothers have been housed in one boma and a pair of sisters in another; the others have been put in individual bomas.”
“The actual work is to keep them healthy and alive and sustain the population. The usual transit mortality rate is 20% and we have been very lucky that all the cheetahs have arrived safe and sound,’’ added Jhala, who will be stationed at the Kuno National Park for the coming week, monitoring the big cats in their new landscape.
Apart from the health of the cheetahs over the next month, and their ability to hunt in the park thereafter, Jhala says that there will be two main challenges for sustaining the cheetah population in Kuno: to keep building a prey base for the cheetahs, and to ensure that there is no poaching.
“The Kuno area is a high poaching region, especially among the Saharia and Mogia tribes here. The other thing we will be monitoring closely is the possibility of capture myopathy, which can often show up within a couple of days of transportation of a wild animal. In which case, appropriate medical interventions will have to be made,’’ he said.
Capture myopathy is a condition with a high mortality rate, which occurs among wild animals that experience stress and physical exertion from the transfer.
On Saturday morning, after the event held to mark the release of the cheetahs into their enclosures, PM Modi interacted with ‘cheetah mitras’ — a group of youngsters who had been trained to create awareness among the villagers about the cheetahs.
Talking to them about how cheetahs are different from leopards, Modi shared Gujarat’s experience of protecting the Asiatic lions, when he was chief minister of the state.
Aarti Ahirwar, one of the cheetah mitras who got to interact with the Prime Minister, said, “He spoke to us for about 20 minutes, sharing with us his experience in Gujarat.”
Later, addressing 1.20 lakh Self-Help Group (SHG) women who had assembled in Karhal from four districts around Sheopur, Prime Minister Modi said, “On the occasion of my birthday, when I do not have any programme lined up, I usually visit my mother and touch her feet. But today, I’m not able to meet her but she will be happy to know that I have received the blessings of thousands of mothers and daughters of Madhya Pradesh.”