Twelve cheetahs arrived in Madhya Pradesh from South Africa on Saturday and were released into the quarantine enclosures at the Kuno National Park (KNP) in Sheopur district, five months after the first batch of eight of these fastest land animals were brought there from Namibia, another African nation.
Their inter-continental translocation is part of the Indian government's ambitious program to reintroduce these animals in the country seven decades after they became extinct. The country's last cheetah died in the Koriya district of present-day Chhattisgarh in 1947 and the species was declared extinct in 1952. With the addition of these 12 members, the count of cheetahs at the KNP has gone up to 20. Prime Minister Narendra Modi released eight felines from Namibia into the KNP on September 17 last year.
An Indian Air Force (AIF) plane carrying the 12 cheetahs - seven males and five females - from South Africa, arrived at the Gwalior airport around 10 am. These spotted animals had embarked on a journey to their new home thousands of miles away aboard the IAF transport aircraft from the O R Tambo International Airport at Gauteng in South Africa shortly before midnight. Each cheetah was kept in a separate special wooden box during the journey. After they arrived in Gwalior, the cheetahs were transported to the KNP in Sheopur, a distance of around 165 km by road, in IAF helicopters.
Wearing forest green sleeveless jackets and hats, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Union Minister for Environment and Forests Bhupender Yadav released these felines into the quarantine bomas after the animals arrived at the KNP around noon. While eight cheetahs were put up in separate quarantine enclosures, four others were kept in two bomas in pairs. With their arrival, there are now 10 male cheetahs and as many females at the park.
The South African big cats will be kept in the quarantine enclosures for at least a month before they are moved into the acclimatization bomas. A decision on it will be taken by the task force on cheetahs, officials said. Experts said a delegation from South Africa had visited the KNP in early September last year to see the arrangements at the wildlife sanctuary for housing the cheetahs. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between India and South Africa last month for the translocation of the mammals.
South Africa has donated these big cats to India. But India has to pay USD 3,000 for the capture of every cheetah to the African nation before they are translocated, a wildlife expert said. India had planned to airlift these South African cheetahs in August last year but couldn't do so due to a delay in signing a formal translocation agreement between the two countries.
PM Modi released eight cheetahs from Namibia amid a lot of fanfare, setting the ball rolling for the revival of their population in India where these distinctively spotted cat species became extinct more than 70 years ago. The cheetahs from Namibia – five females and three males – are currently in hunting enclosures at the park before their full release into the wild.
Due to the delay in the MoU signing for the inter-continental translocation of these big cats, some experts had in December last year expressed concern over the health of the South African cheetahs as these animals were quarantined in their home country since July 15 in anticipation of their transfer to India.
As per Indian wildlife laws, a month-long quarantine is mandatory before importing animals and they are required to be kept in isolation for another 30 days after arrival in the country. The Kuno National Park, the new home of the cheetahs, is situated on the northern side of the Vidhyachal mountains and is spread across more than 700 square km. Former Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh initiated 'Project Cheetah' in 2009 under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to reintroduce wild cats in India.