Eight radio-collared African cheetahs arrive at Kuno National Park in central India after traveling 5,000 miles (8,000 km) from Namibia, a trek that has come under fire from some conservationists. The release of the first cat into the park on Saturday, the day before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned 72, marks the arrival of the big cats, the fastest land mammal on Earth. It is the result of a 13-year project to bring back a species that became extinct in India some 70 years ago. For the first time, wild cheetahs are being transported across continents for release as part of the high-profile experiment. Scientists have expressed concerns about it and stated that more needs to be done by the government to safeguard the nation’s fragile fauna.
After a two-day flight and helicopter journey from the African savannah, the cheetahs—five females and three males—arrived. They will spend the next two to three months in a 6-square-kilometer (2-square-mile) enclosure inside the park in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The cats will be released to roam through 5,000 square km (2,000 square miles) of forest and grassland, coexisting with leopards, sloth bears, and striped hyenas. If everything goes according to plan with their adaptation to Kuno.
Next month, 12 more cheetahs from South Africa are anticipated to join the young Indian population. India intends to eventually increase the population to about 40 cats as it raises further financing for the 910 million rupees ($11.4 million) project, which is mostly supported by the state-owned Indian Oil.
According to SP Yadav of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, India has only lost one large mammal species since gaining independence: the cheetah.
However, some Indian conservationists dubbed the research a “vanity project” since it disregarded the African cheetah’s non-native status as a subspecies distinct from the severely endangered Asiatic cheetah, which is currently only found in Iran. Biologists are concerned that cheetahs won’t have enough room to wander without being killed by predators or people due to the competition for land caused by India’s 1.4 billion inhabitants.
India signed on to a U.N. commitment last year to protect 30% of its land and ocean area by 2030, but as of right now, less than 6% of the nation’s territory is under protection.