On September 17, 2022, India welcomed eight cheetahs — five female and three male — from Namibia, marking the beginning of Project Cheetah, the country’s ambitious plan to reintroduce the big cat after it was declared extinct in 1952.
On February 18, 2023, 12 more cheetahs — five female and seven male — from South Africa joined in, taking the total feline numbers to 20, a milestone not witnessed in over eight decades.
As the first lot of eight cheetahs completes one year on Indian soil, only six of them are alive to celebrate their journey. Two female cheetahs lost their lives to the new habitat.
The Namibian cheetahs have endured more than just the loss of two female members. They also experienced the heartbreaking loss of three out of four cubs due to heat stroke.
Besides the Namibian cheetahs, those from South Africa also lost four of their members.
So far, a total of nine cheetahs have died — five Namibian (two adults and three cubs) and four South African.
Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Member of Parliament Varun Gandhi, however, raised concerns over India’s cheetah import plan.
He said, “Reckless pursuit of exotic animals must end immediately, and we should prioritise the welfare of our native wildlife instead.”
He added, “Importing cheetahs from Africa and allowing nine of them to die in a foreign land is not just cruelty but an appalling display of negligence.”
Project Cheetah 2.0
But despite these deaths, all is not lost, says SP Yadav, head, Project Cheetah.
“If we look at last year from the point of view of success, then the benchmark we had set has been achieved,” he said. He added that the survival rate of the cheetahs is more than 50 per cent.
For the second year, Yadav emphasised that the project’s focus would be on breeding these animals. Once breeding takes place, we will understand how the population will behave in our country, he said.
For the next phase of the project, Yadav said the team is working on bringing a batch of around 12 to 14 cheetahs from South Africa. This batch could be introduced at two more habitats in Madhya Pradesh — Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary.
“I hope that in November-December, fencing and enclosure at Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary will be completed and a decision will be taken to bring cheetahs there after inspection,” he said.
According to the action plan on cheetahs, the country will need to import 10-12 cheetahs annually from Africa for at least the next five years.
South Africa has already expressed its willingness to provide India with as many cheetahs as needed.
This assurance was given by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the BRICS summit in August. Ramaphosa said, “We are ready to donate even more, considering your nation’s commitment to the conservation of big cats.”
Ravi Chellam, Ph.D., CEO of Metastring Foundation and Coordinator for Biodiversity Collaborative, however, insists on introducing a second cheetah group only after securing, restoring, managing, and monitoring around 5,000 sq.km. of quality habitat.
A cheetah's territory typically spans 300 to 800 square kilometers, and when they encounter overlapping territories, conflicts may arise. Currently, Kuno National Park covers only 748 square kilometers. Chellam emphasised that there have been instances of avoidable mortalities due to inadequate supervision, expertise, and collaboration with experts.
Chellam cautioned about the risks of holding cheetahs in captivity. He stated, "Currently, all surviving cheetahs, including 14 adults and one cub, are in captivity. Extended periods in captivity will diminish the fitness of these cheetahs for future release into the wild."
In the coming year, the government also intends to establish a cheetah safari, a cheetah interpretation centre, a library, a research facility, and a centre for skill enhancement and capacity building.
Reflecting on the first year’s experiences, Yadav emphasised the need for greater caution in selecting cheetahs for future imports.
Among the first lot, the majority of cheetahs developed winter coats as if preparing for an African winter.
These winter coats, combined with the region’s high humidity and temperatures, caused itching. To relieve the discomfort, the cheetahs scratched their necks on trees or the ground, resulting in bruises and exposed skin. This made them susceptible to maggot infestations and bacterial infections.
“As we embark on the project’s second year, our focus remains resolute — to ensure the cheetah’s survival, in the wild, in India,” said Laurie Marker, founder and executive director Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in a blog post.
“Project Cheetah exemplifies how nations can come together to address the formidable challenges of conservation,” Marker added.