Decades-long wait for cheetahs to end

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At the invitation of the Indian government, Dr Marker returned to India several times over the past 12 years to conduct site assessments and draft plans for the introduction…reports Asian Lite News

Seventy years after they went extinct in the country, cheetahs are all set to walk again on the Indian lands. India is all set to welcome eight cheetahs on September 17 when the big cats will be brought in from Namibia as part of a special agreement.

On Thursday, a modified passenger B747 Jumbo Jet, painted with the face of a tiger, landed in the Namibian capital of Windhoek to ferry the big cats. The plane will take off from Hosea Kutako International Airport in Windhoek with eight Namibian wild cheetahs, five females and three males, on board.

On September 17, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will release the cheetahs in the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh. The day also happens to be the birthday of the prime minister.

After the species went extinct in the country in 1952, India made a commitment to return cheetahs to several locations within the nation, the first being Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh. There, facilities for the animals have been developed, staff have been trained, and larger predators have been moved away.

The concept was first put forth in 2009 by Indian conservationists, with Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) Drs Laurie Marker, Bruce Brewer and Stephen J O’Brien visiting India for consultative meetings with the government the same year. CCF is a not-for-profit organisation, headquartered in Namibia, which works towards saving and rehabilitating cheetahs in the wild.

At the invitation of the Indian government, Dr Marker returned to India several times over the past 12 years to conduct site assessments and draft plans for the introduction.

Project Cheetah was approved by the Supreme Court of India in January 2020 as a pilot programme to reintroduce the species to India.

In July 2020, India and the Republic of Namibia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) around the conservation of cheetah. The MoU includes Namibia’s participation in Project Cheetah, with the government agreeing to donate the first eight individuals to launch the programme. This is the first time that a wild southern African cheetah will be introduced in India, or in Asia, or on any other continent.

The eight cheetahs that are being brought to India include five females and three males. The five female cheetahs are aged between two and five years, while the male cheetahs are aged between 4.5 years and 5.5 years.

The first cheetah, aged two, was found with its brother at a waterhole near the city of Gobabis in south-eastern Namibia. The feline siblings were in poor health and they were probably orphaned by a wild fire some weeks before they were found. The big cats were rescued by the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) and they have been living at the CCF centre since September 2020.

The second female cheetah, aged between three to four years, was captured in July 2020 from a farm near the CCF centre.

The third female, aged two and a half years, was born in a private game reserve. Its mother was part of the CCF’s rehabilitation programme and had been released into the wild two years ago.

The fourth and fifth female cheetahs are of the same age – around five years. One of them was found by farm workers in 2017 in a malnourished state. The farm workers nursed the cheetah back to health before it was taken into the CCF rehabilitation programme in January 2018.

The fifth female cheetah was picked up by CCF staff in February 2019 from a farm near Kamanjab village in north-western Namibia.

Among the three male cheetahs, two are brothers, aged around five-and-a-half-years. The siblings have been living at the CCF reserve at Otjiwarongo in Namibia since July 2021.

The third male cheetah is aged four-and-a-half-years. It was born at the Erindi Private Game Reserve in March 2018.

Each cheetah has been vaccinated, fitted with a satellite collar and kept in isolation at the CCF centre in Namibia.

These cheetahs were selected based on an assessment of health, wild disposition, hunting skills and ability to contribute genetics that will result in a strong founder population.

The Boeing 747 ‘Jumbo Jet’ aircraft that is taking the eight cheetahs to India is a B747-400 passenger jet. The jet cabin has been modified to allow cages to be secured in the main cabin of the aircraft but will still allow vets to have full access to the cats during the flight.

The aircraft is an ultra-long range jet capable of flying up to 16 hours and so can fly directly from Namibia to India without a stop to refuel, an important consideration for the well-being of the cheetahs. The aircraft was sourced by Action Aviation, a large aircraft brokerage company.

The aircraft carrying the cheetahs on their historic transcontinental mission is flying overnight, so the animals will travel during the coolest hours of the day, arriving in Jaipur, India, on the morning of Saturday, September 17. From Jaipur, the cheetahs will be transferred by helicopter to Kuno National Park, where they will be welcomed by a delegation led by PM Modi.

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