- Eight leopards moved from Namibia to India
- The animal disappeared from India 70 years ago
- Attempting to bring cats back may polish their environmental credentials
- Some conservationists call it an unrealistic vanity project
- Challenges include space limits and competing predators
LONDON/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Eight African leopards radioed to the grassland of Kono National Park in central India, their final destination after a 5,000-mile (8,000-kilometre) trek from Namibia drew criticism. Some of the environmentalists.
The arrival of the big cat – the fastest land animal on Earth – coincides with the 72nd birth anniversary of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who released his first cat into the zoo on Saturday. It is the culmination of a 13-year effort to recover a species that disappeared from India nearly 70 years ago.
This landmark project is the first time that wild leopards have been transported across continents to be released. It has raised questions from scientists who say the government should do more to protect the country’s struggling wildlife.
Register now to get free unlimited access to Reuters.com
The cheetahs – five females and three males – have arrived after a two-day flight and helicopter ride from the African savannah and are expected to spend two to three months in a 6-square-kilometre (2-square-mile) enclosure inside a park in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
If all goes well with their acclimation to Kono, the cats will be released to run through 5,000 square kilometers (2,000 square miles) of forest and grassland, sharing the landscape with tigers, sloth bears and striped hyenas.
Another 12 cheetahs are expected to join the fledgling Indian population next month from South Africa. As India raises more funding for the 910 million rupee ($11.4 million) project, which is largely funded by the state-owned Indian Oil Corporation, it hopes to eventually increase the population to around 40 cats.
SB Yadav of the National Tiger Protection Authority said the leopard extinction 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 have called the effort a “vanity project” that ignores the fact that the African cheetah – a similar but separate subspecies of the endangered Asiatic cheetah now found only in Iran – is not native to the Indian subcontinent.
And with India’s 1.4 billion people vying for land, biologists worry that leopards won’t have enough room to roam without being killed by predators or humans.
India last year joined a UN pledge to conserve 30% of its land and ocean by 2030, but today less than 6% of the country’s land is protected.
Modi said the return of the cheetah “is our endeavor towards conservation of the environment and wildlife”.
While leopards today are often associated with Africa, the word “cheetah” comes from the Sanskrit word “chitraka”, which means “spotted leopard.”
At one point, the Asian leopard spread widely across North Africa, the Middle East, and throughout India. During the era of the Mughal Empire, tamed cheetahs served as royal hunting companions, hunting down prey on behalf of their masters.
But the hunters later turned their weapons at the leopard itself. Today, only 12 remain in the arid regions of Iran.
The Cheetah Project, which began in 2009 under the government of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, seemed to offer India an opportunity to right a historical wrong and boost its environmental reputation.
Yadav said India’s successes in managing the world’s largest population of wild tigers prove it has the credentials to bring back leopards.
However, even among African countries, “there have been a few cheetah[transfers]to large or unfenced areas that have succeeded,” said Kim Young Overton, cheetah program manager at Panthera, a global organization for the conservation of wild cats.
To prepare the leopards for success, the authorities relocate villagers from Bagsha near Kono. Officials also vaccinated domestic dogs in the area against diseases that can be transmitted to cats.
Wildlife officials reviewed the prey in the park, to make sure there were enough spotted deer, blue bulls, wild boars and porcupines to maintain the leopards’ diet.
IOC has pledged to provide more than 500 million rupees ($6.3 million) for the project over the next five years.
Cats petting controversy
Some Indian scholars say that modern India presents challenges that animals did not face in the past.
A single leopard needs plenty of room to roam. An area of 100 square kilometers (38 square miles) can support six to 11 tigers, and 10 to 40 lions, but only one leopard.
Once the leopards cross the unfenced Kono border, “the local dogs and leopards will drive them out within six months,” said wildlife biologist Ullas Karanth, director of the Center for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru.
“Or they kill a goat, and the villagers will poison them” in response.
Poaching concerns have stymied another project that included a 2013 Supreme Court order to move some of the world’s last remaining Asian lions from their only reserve in the western Indian state of Gujarat to Kono. Now, the leopards will take over that space.
“Cheetahs cannot be a burden to India,” said wildlife biologist Ravi Chelam, a scientific expert who specializes in Asian lions. “These are African animals found in dozens of locations. The Asiatic lion is one population. A simple look at the situation shows which species should have priority.”
Other conservation experts say the promise to bring cheetahs back to India is worth the challenges.
“Cheetahs play an important role in grassland ecosystems,” grazing prey across grasslands and preventing overgrazing, says conservation biologist Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund that leads the Namibian side of the project.
Marker and her collaborators will help monitor cat settlement, hunting and breeding in the coming years.
Modi called on people to be patient while the cats adapt. “In order for them to make Kono National Park their home, we have to give these leopards a few months.”
Register now to get free unlimited access to Reuters.com
Additional reporting by Gloria Dickey in London and Tanvi Mehta in New Delhi; Editing by Katie Daigle, Mike Collette White and Frank Jack Daniel
Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.