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Despite concerns around the dubious track record of conservation of at-risk wildlife in India and the lack of adequate habitat for the cheetah, the fastest land animal on Earth is set to return to India, almost seven decades after it went extinct in the country.
And there will be eight of them—five males and three females—according to a report by the BBC. The cats will be flown in from South Africa to a National Park here towards year-end. The BBC confirmed the news quoting the dean of the Wildlife Institute of India, Yadvendradev Jhala, who deemed the resources and habitat to reintroduce the cheetah for conservation, adequate now.
The animal's reintroduction to India has been reported quite a few times in the past few years.
However, experts and conservationists remain skeptical of the move. The most cited reason for the lack of faith is lack of fenced reserves considering that cheetahs are delicate animals and conflict with other cats—India has tigers, lions and leopards in regions that have been identified for cheetah sanctuaries—could greatly endanger their existence in a new land. Cheetahs are known to be highly adaptable but availability of wild prey so that human-animal conflict can be avoided.
Experts and cheetah conservationists have identified a few potential habitats for reintroducing the animal—the recently notified Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh; and Rajasthan's Mukundra Hills are being seen as promising reserves. However, the first batch of these cats will find themselves in Kuno National Park, whose healthy population of wild boars and antelopes are expected to fulfil the new entrants' diet and consequently support breeding and multiplication.
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The cheetah, an exceptionally agile and graceful grassland feline, is known for reaching speeds close to 110km/h as it chases down prey—mostly gazelles, antelopes, hares and cattle calves. Though not aggressive as the other big cats, cheetahs are mostly found in the southern African countries of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. In Malawi, where it was reintroduced in 2018, its number has grown sixfold to 24 now.
During the Mughal emperor Akbar's reign, there were an estimated 10,000 cheetahs in India, with a tenth of that number a part of the emperor's court. However, ruthless bounty-hunting by the British and the despicable pomp of the royal shikar by the kings ruling central and Western India led to its extinction, shortly after Independence.
The Asiatic cheetah is now found only Iran. Attempts to reintroduce the cat have been consistently made since the 1950s, but have always fallen through.
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