12 South African cheetahs arrive for India re-wilding

South African cheetahsReuters file photo

Twelve South African cheetahs arrived in India on Saturday as part of an ambitious project to reintroduce the spotted cats in the south Asian country.

The big cats landed in their new country aboard an Indian Air Force C-17 Globemaster aircraft, the second batch to arrive following another eight cheetahs transferred from Namibia last year.

The latest arrival is part of an agreement signed by South Africa in January to transfer more than 100 cheetahs to India over the next decade.

Their resettlement "provides space for the expansion of the cheetah within its historical range", India's environment ministry said Saturday.

But critics have warned the creatures may struggle to adapt to the Indian habitat.

India was once home to the Asiatic cheetah but the animal was declared extinct there by 1952, primarily because of habitat loss and deaths at the hands of hunters seeking their distinctive spotted hides.

Efforts to reintroduce the animal gathered pace in 2020 when India's Supreme Court ruled that African cheetahs, a different subspecies, could be brought into the country on an experimental basis.

The 12 cheetahs from South Africa will join their Namibian cousins at the Kuno National Park, a wildlife sanctuary 320 kilometres (200 miles) south of New Delhi, selected for its abundant prey and grasslands.

Quarantine enclosures have been created at the reserve for the newly arriving cheetahs, officials said.

Their arrival is the first intercontinental relocation of the planet's fastest land animal.

Cheetahs are one of the oldest big cat species, with ancestors dating back about 8.5 million years, and once roamed widely throughout Asia and Africa in great numbers.

But today only around 7,000 remain, primarily in the African savannahs.

The cheetah is listed globally as "vulnerable" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.

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

Conservation scientist Ravi Chellam told AFP last year that cheetah cubs could fall prey to feral dogs and other carnivores in India.