Staff at a national park in central India are preparing to welcome 12 cheetahs from South Africa on Saturday.
The big cats, seven males and five females, will be flown from Gauteng on Friday evening in a military aircraft that will land at Gwalior Air Force base in central Madhya Pradesh at 10am.
They will then be taken by military helicopters to Kuno National Park, a park official told The National.
The park is already home to eight cheetahs after a first batch brought in from Namibia was given a grand welcome by Prime MinisterNarendra Modi on his birthday in September last year.
“We are eagerly waiting to welcome the animals,” Rajesh Mangal, an official at Kuno National Park, told The National.
Authorities have installed cameras and the cats have been fitted with radio collars for live tracking.
A team of vets, customs officers and experts from the National Tiger Conservation Authority have been sent to Gwalior to help with the transfer of the animals.
The animals will need customs clearance and face other procedures in accordance with international conventions before being loaded into helicopters to the park.
Several health checks will be completed before the animals are moved to their enclosures.
Mr Mangal said special enclosures have been set up for the felines to separate them from the cheetahs from Namibia.
“A team of 100 staff members will look after them. We have set up different enclosures for the cheetahs and they will remain in quarantine for a few months, just like the wild cats from Namibia,” he said.
The wild beasts are a part of India’s decades-long ambitious cheetah reintroduction plan under which South Africa will translocate 100 wild cats over the next decade.
New Delhi has been lobbying African nations over the ambitious project in an effort to reintroduce the species to the country more than seven decades after it was declared extinct.
South Africa’s environment ministry and New Delhi signed a deal last month for the transfer and agreed to promote conservation and ensure expertise is shared and exchanged for capacity building and promoting cheetah conservation.
A team of experts from South Africa visited the sanctuary to see the arrangements.
The cheetahs have been kept in quarantine in South Africa and have not hunted for themselves since being kept in enclosures.
The cheetah is a large cat native to Africa and Asia. Numbers of the Asian species have dwindled, with only a handful now found in Iran.
They are known for being the fastest animal on land, able to reach speeds of up to 120kph.
Hunted to extinction
It is believed India had more than 10,000 cheetahs during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar in the 15th century, about 10 per cent of which were kept at his court for hunting other animals.
But their population dwindled by the 1900s as a result of bounty hunting by colonial British rulers and former Indian kings.
The last three cats were hunted down in 1947 by Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo, a king in central India’s Koriya region.
The Indian government in 1952 declared the Asiatic cheetahs extinct in the country.
For several decades, the Indian government unsuccessfully made efforts to translocate cheetahs from Iran — the last home of Asiatic cheetahs ― forcing the government to look to Africa.
But its attempts stalled after India’s Supreme Court ruled that cheetahs from African species were foreign to India, before overturning its own ruling in 2018.
New Delhi immediately started negotiations with several African countries and signed an agreement with Namibia last July to relocate 50 cheetahs to India by 2027.