Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to release eight cheetahs being brought from Namibia into the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh on his birthday on September 17.
The large carnivore got completely wiped out from India due to their use for coursing, sport hunting, over-hunting and habitat loss. The government declared the cheetah extinct in the country in 1952.
Starting in the 1970s, the efforts of the Indian government to re-establish the species in its historical ranges in the country led to the signing of a pact with Namibia, which is donating the first eight individuals to launch the Cheetah reintroduction programme, on July 20 this year.
As part of the first-of-its-kind transcontinental mission, five female and three male cheetahs will head for India in a customised Boeing 747-400 aircraft from Namibia's capital Windhoek, travelling overnight and reaching Jaipur on the morning of Saturday, September 17.
They will then be flown to their new home -- Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh -- in helicopters.
According to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), an international not-for-profit organisation headquartered in Namibia and dedicated to saving the cheetah in the wild, the five female cheetahs are aged between two years and five years and the male cheetahs are aged between 4.5 years and 5.5 years.
The male cheetahs include two brothers who have been living on the CCF's 58,000-hectare private reserve near Otjiwarongo, Namibia, since at least July 2021, when the CCF staff first noticed their tracks around the Centre. Male cubs from the same litter stay together for life and form coalitions to hunt.
Another male was born at the Erindi Private Game Reserve, a protected wildlife and ecological reserve in central Namibia, in March 2018. His mother was also born there.
The eight cheetahs include a female found with her brother at a waterhole near the city of Gobabis in southeastern Namibia.
Both were very skinny and malnourished and the CCF believes their mother had died in a wildfire a few weeks prior. This cat has been living at the CCF centre since September 2020.
Another female cheetah was captured in a trap cage on the CCF's neighbouring farm in July 2022, owned by a prominent Namibian businessman.
One of the female cheetahs was born at Erindi Private Game Reserve in April 2020. Her mother was in the CCF's cheetah rehabilitation programme and had been successfully returned to the wild a little more than two years ago.
The fourth female cheetah was found on a farm near Gobabis, Namibia, in late 2017 by some farm workers. She was skinny and malnourished and the workers nursed her back to health.
In January 2018, the CCF staff learned about the animal and moved her to the CCF centre.
The CCF staff picked up another female from a farm located in the north-western part of Namibia close to the village of Kamanjab in February 2019.
Since arriving, she has become best friends with the fourth female cheetah, and the two are typically always found together in their enclosure.
According to the CCF, the aircraft bringing the cheetahs to India has been modified to allow cages to be secured in the main cabin 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 for 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, it said.
The mission has been designated as a “Flagged Expedition” by the Explorers Club, an American-based international multidisciplinary professional society with the goal of promoting scientific exploration.
Eight officials and experts will oversee the Namibian cheetahs during the mission, including Prashant Agrawal, High Commissioner of India to Namibia, Yadvendradev Vikramsinh Jhala, chief scientist for Project Cheetah and Dean of Wildlife Institute of India; Sanath Krishna Muliya, veterinarian, Union Environment Ministry; Laurie Marker, CCF Founder and Executive Director; Eli Walker, CCF conservation biologist and cheetah specialist; Barthelemy Batalli, CCF data manager and Ana Basto, CCF veterinarian.
At the KNP, the prime minister will release the cheetahs, aged four to six years, in smaller quarantine enclosures where they will be kept for 30 days. They will then be released in a six-sq km predator-proof holding facility with nine compartments.