Eight wild cats from Namibia will be allowed to roam freely in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno-Palpur national park as part of an initiative to return the species to its natural environment.

Despite being an essential component of India’s ecosystem, poaching and habitat destruction led to the cheetah’s extermination from the nation in 1952. Cheetahs are the fastest land animals in the world, capable of reaching speeds of up to 70 mph (113 km/h).

According to the Red List of Threatened Species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are only 7,000 cheetahs left in the wild globally. The world’s greatest cheetah population is found in Namibia.

In 1952, cheetahs in India were formally declared extinct. Their disappearance was primarily caused by intensive hunting and habitat loss. The Asiatic cheetah was fairly widespread up until the 20th century and could be found anywhere from Israel and the Arabian Peninsula to Iran, Afghanistan, and India. They were found as far south as Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli area in India. Indian rulers and princes used the Asiatic cheetah, commonly referred to as the “hunting leopard,” to hunt blackbucks and gazelles. It is believed that Firuz Shah Tughluq was the first king in mediaeval times to domesticate cheetahs for use in hunting. Around 1000 cheetahs belonged to Mughal emperor Akbar, who used them to hunt gazelles and blackbucks. 

A white Cheetah (albino) was reportedly owned by Raja Vir Singh Deo in Orchha in 1608. In his book Tuzuk-I Jahangiri, the Mughal king Jahangir described its markings as being blue in colour. This is allegedly the sole known instance of a white cheetah. Only the province governors were permitted to capture and raise cheetahs in captivity, according to the chronicles written by the French traveller Jean de Thévenot during the reign of Aurangzeb. Another significant factor in the species’ rapid decline in India is thought to be the capture of large numbers of adult Indian cheetahs for use in royal hunts. These cats never bred in captivity, with only one record of a litter ever. A declining Cheetah population is indicated by the lower number of trophy hunting reports at the end of British Rule in India compared to the early years. At least 230 cheetahs were still living in the wild in 1799, according to a study. 

The species was on the verge of extinction in many locations by the turn of the twentieth century. This issue was more prevalent in some areas than others. When causing habitat loss for these large cats, the Indian reserves were not very considerate. The Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Surguja State is believed to have killed three Asiatic cheetahs in 1948 in eastern Madhya Pradesh or northern Chhattisgarh, leaving no physical traces behind. However, a female was spotted in 1951 in Koriya district, in what is now Chhattisgarh. Prey was plentiful in India around the middle of the 20th century, and cheetahs consumed blackbuck, chinkara, and occasionally chital and nilgai. 

The Asiatic cheetah was the only mammal in recorded history to go extinct from India owing to artificial means, with the death of the last remaining population in India officially declaring the species extinct. The loss of the cheetahs and the Indian monarchy who valued them resulted in local people gaining authority over, managing, and using the cheetahs’ native grasslands. “Under the hooves of a thousand cattle, the grasslands faded and shrunk, tilled and ploughed until just a few scattered remains were preserved in the shape of wildlife sanctuaries.” 

The cheetah will follow the Royal Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), Asiatic lion (Panthera leo leo), Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), snow leopard (Panthera uncia), and clouded leopard as the sixth big cat to be discovered in India (Neofelis nebulosa)

A deal between Iran and the former prime minister Indira Gandhi called for exchanging a few Asiatic lions that had vanished in Iran for wild Asiatic cheetahs.

This attempt at wildlife diplomacy was unsuccessful due to the tumultuous political circumstances that resulted in the toppling of Iran’s Shah in 1979.

According to Spoorthy Raman, The Cheetahs that were coming to India initially were from supposed to be from Iran but eventually Iran decided not to part with their Cheetahs as they themselves are left with very few.

After that, on July 20, 2022, India and Namibia inked an MoU to bring back the African cheetah to India.

Namibia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, and Union Minister for Environment, Forests, and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav signed the Memorandum of Understanding in New Delhi. 

Ten prospective relocation sites in central India were initially investigated. Kuno Palpur National park was awarded the best grade in the end. This is because of its favourable habitat and a large prey population.

Kuno Palpur National Park contains negligible human habitations and is 748 square kilometres in size. It is a component of the Sheopur-Shivpuri deciduous open forest ecosystem and is capable of hosting 21 cheetahs, according to estimates.

Additionally, the “Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India” was a decision made by the Indian government to reintroduce cheetahs.

The cheetah, the only extinct big animal in independent India, is the target of Project Cheetah. 50 cheetahs will be introduced as part of the programme over the course of five years in various National Parks, the PIB noted.

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