Narendra Modi releases Namibian cheetahs into Indian wildlife reserve

Eight animals are first to roam wild in India since the species was declared extinct in the country seven decades ago

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday released cheetahs from Namibia into a national park in central India, in the first step towards reintroducing the species seven decades after it was declared extinct in the country.

The eight cheetahs, five females and three males, were flown to in Gwalior city in the state of Madhya Pradesh early on Saturday and were taken to Kuno National Park in a Chinook helicopter.

Mr Modi, dressed in a safari waistcoat and bushranger hat, used a lever to open the doors of the animals' crates and release them into a quarantine enclosure where they will be held temporarily before being allowed to roam the 748-square-kilometre park.

A live broadcast of the event showed one of the first two cheetahs refusing to leave its crate, while the other stepped out cautiously and began to take stock of its surroundings.

“Decades ago, the age-old link of biodiversity was broken and had become extinct. Today we have a chance to reconnect it," said Mr Modi, who turned 72 on Saturday.

"Along with these cheetahs, the nature-loving consciousness of India has also awakened with full force."

Mr Modi said the return of cheetahs to the wild would restore the ecosystem of the grasslands and boost biodiversity.

“There will be development and employment opportunities,” he said.

Mr Modi also praised the country’s efforts to conserve endangered species including tigers, Asiatic lions and one-horned rhinos.

He emphasised environmental conservation would go hand in hand with economic development.

Thousands of cheetahs once roamed India but the animals were declared extinct in 1952 after centuries of hunting by Indian kings and British rulers.

Indian governments and conservationists tried for decades to transport in cheetahs from Africa, but the country’s senior court initially blocked those efforts, describing the animals as a “foreign species”.

Projects to move Asiatic Cheetahs to India from Iran were rejected by Tehran owing to the depleted population. About 70 of the cats are estimated to live in the wild in Iran.

After the Indian Supreme Court approved the introduction of African cheetahs in 2018, the government signed pacts with Namibia and South Africa for the first transcontinental translocation of the animals.

Dr Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, accompanied the eight cheetahs on the 8,000km, 20-hour journey to India.

She said the animals, all between the age of 2 and 6, were “mildly sedated” for the trip.

Their new habitat is a vast grassland surrounded by the Vindhya mountain range. The large open spaces will allow the animals to hunt using their running speeds of up to 120 kilometres an hour.

Altogether, India will receive 50 cheetahs from Namibia over the next five years. More cheetahs are expected from South Africa in the coming months.

The cheetah reintroduction programme was initially scheduled to begin on August 15, the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, but was pushed back by technical delays.

Mr Modi has marked his birthday with other special events in the past. Last year, the government administered 25 million Covid-19 vaccine shots in one day to celebrate his birthday, along with lighting 71,000 earthen lamps and cutting a 21-metre cake.

“The cheetahs brought today in my opinion is the happy return of the PM as well as the happy return of cheetahs to India,” Dr MK Ranjitsihn, a senior official in India's cheetah project, told The National.

The government has also launched a 15-day nationwide blood donation campaign to mark Mr Modi's birthday.

Updated: September 17, 2022, 11:40 AM