KUNO NATIONAL PARK, India – Cheetahs once prowled India among lions, tigers and leopards. They appear in ancient Hindu texts and in cave paintings, and are woven into centuries-old tapestries. The Mughal emperor Akbar kept 1,000 cheetahs in his stables.
But for 75 years – the entirety of its existence as an independent nation – India has been bereft of cheetahs, the world’s fastest land animal.
That changed Saturday, when eight cheetahs arrived in India after a flight from Africa, initiating a great untried experiment for the world: whether a top predator population can be brought back to life in a place where it was long ago hunted into extinction.
The big cats boarded a Boeing 747 in Namibia on Friday and arrived in India on Saturday morning. Next, they will be flown by military helicopter to their new home, Kuno National Park, in a lush river valley where yellow butterflies flutter over miles of greenery in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
“It is the only large mammal that India has lost,” said Mr S.P. Yadav, secretary of India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority.
“It is our moral and ethical responsibility to bring them back,” he said.
The plan to return cheetahs to India dates almost to the time of their extinction in the country, and it represents a bold and uncertain attempt to ensure the animals’ survival by redistributing them from Africa, where their population is in sharp decline.
The project also reflects the muscular nationalism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is bringing to bear India’s growing wealth and scientific knowledge.
The cats’ entry was timed for Mr Modi’s 72nd birthday, which he planned to celebrate Saturday by witnessing their release into a soft enclosure at Kuno.
A huge convoy of politicians, supporters and Indian Oil representatives – as well as thousands of police officers for the prime minister’s security – filed down the single-lane highway into the remote park for the event.
The cheetah species dates back about 8.5 million years, and the animals were once found in great numbers across Africa, Arabia and Asia. They now live exclusively in Africa, other than a tiny population in Iran.
Their population is estimated to be fewer than 8,000, down by half over the past four decades.
With habitat loss and other dangers leaving cheetahs vulnerable to extinction in Africa, many conservationists argue that it is wise to resettle some of the animals.