NEW DELHI, India: Cheetahs have returned to India, seven decades after becoming extinct, after large cats from Namibia were flown to the northern Indian city of Gwalior.
The move is part of an ambitious and controversial plan to reintroduce cheetahs to the South Asian country.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who released the cats into their enclosure, said, "When the cheetah will run again, grasslands will be restored, biodiversity will increase and eco-
tourism will get a boost."
Cheetahs were once widespread in India, but became extinct in 1952 due to hunting and loss of habitat.
Globally, there are less than 7,000 adult cheetahs left in the wild, and they now inhabit less than 9 percent of their original range.
Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, an advocacy and research group assisting in bringing the cats to India, said shrinking habitat, increasing human population and climate change is a significant threat, and India's grasslands and forests could offer "appropriate" homes for the big cats.
"To save cheetahs from extinction, we need to create permanent places for them on earth," she said, as quoted by Reuters.
However, some experts are more cautious. Mayukh Chatterjee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature said, "cascading and unintended consequences" when a new animal is brought to the mix could occur.
Before being released into a larger enclosure in the park, the first eight cheetahs from Namibia will be quarantined at a facility in the national park and monitored for a month to make sure they are not carrying pests.
The enclosures contain natural prey, such as spotted deer and antelope.
The cheetahs will be fitted with tracking collars, and in some two months they will be released into the national park, where there is only one village with a few hundred families still residing.
Indian officials said the villagers will be moved soon, and any livestock losses caused by cheetahs will be compensated.
The project is estimated to cost $11.5 million over five years, including $6.3 million paid by state-owned company Indian Oil.