South Africa prepares to send cheetahs to India in October

Twelve of the animals will follow eight being sent from Namibia this month

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South Africa will fly 12 cheetahs to India next month after sending four to Mozambique as part of an ambitious effort to reintroduce the species in regions where the population has dwindled.

The big cats are captured at reserves in South Africa and held in quarantine for about a month before they are cleared for travel. They are then anaesthetised with dart guns so that they can be safely placed in crates for travel.

“It’s a very stressful process for the cats to be in a boma [livestock enclosure] environment because they have nowhere to go whilst we are darting them,” said wildlife vet Andy Frasier.

“We need to use our drug doses very carefully and make sure that we give them enough drugs to anaesthetise them safely,” he told The Associated Press shortly after the four cheetahs bound for Mozambique were placed into crates.

“They have woken up nicely in their crates and they are all relaxed enough that we are happy for them to leave in their transport.”

Mr Frasier said the team was now preparing for the larger and more challenging relocation of cheetahs to India, which will require the cats to travel a much longer distance with stops in commercial airports.

Those cheetahs would be treated with a tranquilliser that lasts for three to five days during their travel, he said.

There are two subspecies of cheetahs. Those that once roamed in Asia were declared extinct in India in 1952 and are now found only in Iran. Since then, there have been efforts to reintroduce these cats to India’s savannahs.

Initially, the plan was to bring in cheetahs from Iran but now they are being moved from southern African countries.

India's reintroduction of cheetahs in the wild “has a larger goal of re-establishing ecological function in Indian grasslands that was lost due to extinction of Asiatic cheetah”, Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said in July after signing an agreement to supply of the animals with Namibia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah.

Eight cheetahs from Namibia will be flown to India this month, Vincent van der Merwe, manager of the Cheetah Metapopulation Initiative, told AP. South Africa will send an additional 12 cheetahs to India in October, he said.

“For a genetically viable population in India in the long term, you need at least 500 individuals, so every year, we will send eight to 12 animals, to top them up, to increase numbers, to bring in new genetics until they have a viable population,” Mr van der Merwe said.

Indian officials say the move will aid global cheetah conservation efforts, as their range in Africa is limited.

The plan is for the cats to be kept in large enclosures in central Indian forests, protected from other predators such as leopards or bears, to give them time to get used to their new home. The enclosures have prey — such as deer and antelope — which scientists hope the cheetahs will hunt.

After a few months of close monitoring, the cheetahs will be radio-collared and released.

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The southern African countries of South Africa, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe still have large cheetah populations and are expected to play a significant role in their reintroduction in India following the first shipments this year.

South Africa’s cheetah population is expanding at a rate of about 8 per cent annually, allowing the country to move about 30 of the cats to other game reserves within the country and to export some to other countries, Mr van der Merwe said.

Conservationists say Mozambique’s Zambezi River delta had a significant cheetah population which was drastically reduced by rampant poaching and because lions and leopards preyed upon the smaller cats.

In this week’s operation, the two male and two female adult cheetahs were tranquillised in South Africa’s northern Limpopo province and then were flown to Mozambique’s Marromeu National Reserve in the Zambezi delta region.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Updated: September 08, 2022, 3:40 PM