Officials and veterinarians said eight Namibian cheetahs have been taken to India, part of an ambitious project to reintroduce big cats after becoming extinct decades ago.
The wild cheetahs were taken by road from a game park north of the Namibian capital of Windhoek on Friday, where they boarded a chartered Boeing 747 called a “cat plane” for an 11-hour flight.
He will be welcomed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his 72nd birthday on Saturday.
He will open the doors to Kuno National Park, a new sanctuary for cats, 320 km (200 mi) south of New Delhi.
The 750 sq km (290 sq mi) protected park was chosen as home due to the abundant hunting and grasslands.
According to Indian High Commissioner to Namibia Prashant Agarwal, the project is the world’s first inter-continental transfer of cheetahs, the world’s fastest land animal.
“This is a historic, global first – game-changing,” he said. “We are all the more excited as this is happening in the 75th year of Indian independence.”
Critics warn that Namibian cheetahs may struggle to adapt to Indian habitats and may struggle with significant numbers of leopards that already exist. But the organizers are unconcerned.
“Cheetahs are very adaptable and [I’m] assuming they will adapt well to this environment,” said Dr. Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, a Namibia-based charity that has been central to the project logistics. “So I don’t worry too much.”
The project has been in the making for over a decade. Initial discussions began in the 1990s, she told AFP.
India was once home to the Asiatic Cheetah, but by 1952 it was declared extinct there. The critically endangered subspecies, which once roamed the Middle East, Central Asia and India, is now only found in small numbers in Iran.
New Delhi is working to reintroduce the animals from 2020 as the Supreme Court announced that African cheetahs, a separate subspecies, could be resettled in a “carefully chosen location” on an experimental basis.
Five women and three men in the age group of 2.5 to five and a half years will be equipped with satellite collars.
They are a donation from the government of Namibia, one of a small handful of countries in Africa where the creature survives in the wild.
A government official said on Friday that talks are underway for a similar relocation from South Africa, which suggests relocating 12 cats.
Cheetahs in India became extinct mainly due to habitat loss and hunting for their distinctive spotted coat.
An Indian prince, Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo, is believed to have killed the last three cheetahs recorded in India in the late 1940s.
One of the big cat species, with ancestors about 8.5m years old, the cheetah once roamed widely throughout Asia and Africa, the Cheetah Conservation Fund said.
But today only 7,000 remain, mainly in the African savanna.
The cheetah is listed globally as “Vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. It is “critically endangered” in North Africa and Asia.
Their existence is threatened mainly by the loss of hunting due to depleting natural habitat and human hunting, development of land for other purposes, and climate change.