LONDON/NEW DELHI: Eight radio-collared African cheetahs step out on to the grassland of Kuno National Park in central India, their final destination after a 8,000 km journey from Namibia that has drawn criticism from some conservationists.
The arrival of the big cats - the fastest land animal on Earth - coincides with the 72nd birthday of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who released the the first cat into the park on Saturday. It is the culmination of a 13-year effort to restore a species which vanished from India some 70 years ago.
The high-profile project is the first time wild cheetahs have been moved across continents to be released. It has raised questions from scientists who say the government should do more to protect the country's own struggling wildlife.
The cheetahs - five females and three males - arrived after a two-day airplane and helicopter journey from the African savannah, and are expected to spend two to three months in a 6-square-km enclosure inside the park in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
If all goes well with their acclimation to Kuno, the cats will be released to run through 5,000 square km of forest and grassland, sharing the landscape with leopards, sloth bears and striped hyenas.
Another 12 cheetahs are expected to join the fledgling Indian population next month from South Africa. And as India gathers more funding for the 910 million rupee project, largely financed by the state-owned Indian Oil, it hopes to eventually grow the population to around 40 cats.
S P Yadav of the National Tiger Conservation Authority said the extinction of the cheetah in India in 1952 was the only time the country had lost a large mammal species since independence.
"It is our moral and ethical responsibility to bring it back."
But some Indian conservation experts called the effort a "vanity project" that ignores the fact that the African cheetah - a subspecies similar but separate from the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah now only found in Iran - is not native to the Indian subcontinent.
And with India's 1.4 billion human population jockeying for land, biologists worry cheetahs won't have enough space to roam without being killed by predators or people.
India last year joined a UN pledge to conserve 30 per cent of its land and ocean area by 2030, but today less than 6 per cent of the country's territory is protected. Bringing back the cheetah "is our endeavour towards environment and wildlife conservation," Modi said. - AFP