Then seven decades after maharajas and British colonial hunters wiped cheetahs from the Indian landscape, the world’s fastest land animal will sprint back to the country under new conservation plans.
More than a dozen African cheetahs are going to be moved from South Africa and Namibia to Kuno park in central Madhya Pradesh state under an ambitious project to reintroduce the extinct animal in India.
New Delhi has for years been trying to bring the animal to the country while facing reluctance by host nations and a court ban over concerns that the African cheetahs weren’t fit life in India. But last year the Supreme Court reversed its ban and allowed the relocation on an experimental basis.
“In the primary phase, 12 to fifteen cheetahs are likely to arrive later this year or early 2022,” Gaurav Khare, spokesman for India’s Environment Ministry, told.
“Over subsequent four to 5 years, 40 to 50 are expected,” he said.
The African wild cat’s new habitat may be a vast grassland of more than 340 square kilometres, with large open spaces which will allow the animals to point out off their speed – they’re capable of reaching 120 kilometres per hour.
The guest cats will share their habitat with about 200 Indian leopards and hunt blackbucks and Indian deer.
Cheetahs globally face extinction pressure from global climate change, hunting and low rates of reproduction and are classified as vulnerable under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list of threatened species.
About 7,000 cheetahs remain within the wild in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Iran.
It is believed India had quite 10,000 cheetahs during the reign of 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar, with about 10 per cent as hunting stock for the court.
But their population dwindled swiftly by the 1900s due to bounty hunting by British colonisers and native rulers.
The last three cats were hunted down in 1948 by Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo, a king in central India’s Koriya region 1948.
In 1952, the Indian government declared cheetahs extinct within the country.
A huge vaccination campaign is underway in about 400 villages around the park to inoculate stray dogs against rabies and other canine-transmitted diseases to guard the incoming animals.
Asiatic and African cheetahs differ slightly from one another in size and build, but both are impressive athletic animals with sleek frames, long legs, unique teardrop marks and tiny black spots.
The species faced an identical fate throughout Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, with only about 50 Asiatic cheetahs surviving in Iran, consistent with the International Union for Conservation in Nature.
Since the 1970s India made several attempts to reintroduce the Asiatic cheetah from Iran, but Tehran turned down the request due to their own dwindling population of the beasts.
New Delhi then set its eyes on African cats, but the highest court banned any relocation in 2012 because the species is foreign to India.
But last January it agreed to the proposal, praising India’s credentials within the conservation of other big cats, including Asiatic lions and tigers.
India’s tiger population has doubled to just about 3,000 since 2006 when rampant poaching and shrinking habitat had led to an enormous decline in numbers.
Asiatic lions have almost doubled since 2005 to about 675 from 359 in 2005.
About 14,000 leopards sleep in the wild, making India’s conservation an enormous success and prompting authorities to push for the import of cheetahs.
But their reintroduction divided the country’s wildlife experts, with some saying the endeavour is romantic.
Cheetahs in Africa often enter farmland to feed on livestock, and experts fear that the cats are going to be under greater threat in India, largely due to a scarcity of awareness among local communities about its behaviour.
“Bringing any animal sounds romantic but people haven’t seen cheetahs in decades,” Dr Rajesh Gopal, Secretary-General of worldwide Tiger Forum, told.
“Cheetah may be a delicate animal, more dog-like. they have open space to run and hunt their prey … they’ll find yourself in human settlements and earn a pest value,” he said.
Dr Gopal said that it had been likely that humans may harm the cheetahs in self-defence and therefore the government must sensitise and train the local communities to tackle such a situation.
Man-animal conflicts have increased in recent years due to human encroachments and lack of food within the wild that forces the animals to look for food in nearby human settlements.
On average quite 200 people are killed by big cats per annum and quite double the number of animals, mostly tigers and leopards, are killed by people in India.
Despite these figures, residents near the park say they’re not worried about conflict with cheetahs because they need to be living consonant with wildlife for ages.
Locals say that cheetahs will help to spice up the region’s economy because the animals will attract tourists.
“I have lived my life surrounded by animals, and have even seen leopards sometimes. We aren’t scared,” Pramod Ojha, 34, a shopkeeper near the park, told.
“We are excited about cheetahs because tourism will increase and help our business,” he said.