41 Project Cheetah
For bringing cheetahs to India—70 years after the big cat was declared locally extinct
The cheetah was once an integral part of the Indian landscape, with about 10,000 of the big cats roaming the country in the 16th century. But by the 1950s, a too-familiar combination of poaching and habitat loss had driven the Asiatic cheetah to extinction in India. Now, 70 years later, the world’s fastest land animal is poised to make a comeback in the country, as three dozen African cheetahs are relocated from South Africa and Namibia to a sprawling national park in India over five years.
The US$28 million project marks the first time a large carnivore is being moved from one continent to another and reintroduced in the wild. And it immediately sparked big buzz:#CheetahIsBack was already trending on Twitter in the days before the creatures were released into the wild on 17 September.
“It’s exciting and challenging,” says Yadvendradev Jhala, PhD, the project leader and dean of the Wildlife Institute of India. “We have abated all of the cheetah’s threats and we now have well-protected areas to help restore our lost heritage.”
After signing the agreement with the Namibian government in July, India’s environment minister Bhupender Yadav said the project “will rekindle the ecological dynamics of the landscape,” bringing more attention to the urgent need to restore the savannah while containing prey populations, such as deer, that tend to overgraze in the absence of large predators. The cheetahs are also expected to fuel local ecotourism, spurring greater economic activity and job creation in the surrounding areas.
The project’s origins stretch back to 2010, but early proposals were stalled by legal and logistical delays. At one point, the pressure was on to bring back the Asiatic cheetah, but there are believed to be less than 15 still alive in the world—and all confined to Iran, making the population too scant and inbred to be viable for a conservation project.
It wasn’t until 2020 that the country’s Supreme Court ruled that African cheetahs could be introduced in a “carefully chosen location” on an experimental basis. An expansive team—including the Wildlife Institute of India, the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change—then launched a population viability analysis, carefully evaluating the land and the size and availability of prey in 15 potential locations.
The team chose Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh for the launch, due in part to its abundant prey and vast grasslands. And then the first eight cheetahs made the journey from Namibia to India, following specs laid out in a 300-plus-page project plan that detailed everything from how the animals would be captured (using tranquilizer darts fired by veterinarians perched in moving helicopters) to the lengthy quarantine process (carried out in specialized facilities prior to transport) to the crates used during airline travel.
Upon arrival, the cheetahs were kept in separate but adjoining closures—a weeks-long process that allowed them to acclimate to local prey (such as the Indian gazelle and four-horned antelope), while breaking the big cat’s natural homing instinct to seek out their place of origin. Scent markers and other strategies will be deployed to help anchor the cats to a central area in their new home. And once released into the larger wildlife sanctuary, tracking collars and daily monitoring will help ensure the cheetahs don’t disperse so far that they become isolated.
Though some conservation experts are skeptical about the long-term impact and sustainability of the imported population, Jhala is quick to point out that the reintroduction is just the first step. The sanctuary can currently support roughly 20 cheetahs, but plans are underway to restore additional areas and create enough space to ultimately accommodate 36 cats. And within the next decade, the government aims to import dozens more to a handful of reserves across the country, moving the animals as needed to safeguard the species’ genetic diversity.
“It will be an artificially managed meta-population,” says Jhala, who notes the approach could even extend across continents. “We hope to manage the Indian population in such a way that we can exchange individuals with Namibia and South Africa for years to come.”
Because while the project team was certainly happy to see the September arrival—the first cheetahs to touch paw to the Indian savannah in 70 years— “the ultimate success of the project is having a viable population that remains genetically vibrant for posterity.”
Building on a Roaring Success
Cheetahs aren’t the only big cat to receive a resurgence plan in India. Tigers were also once a common sight, with some 58,000 roaming the country’s vast forests. But by 1972, their numbers had shrunk to just 1,827. The government responded with an ambitious project to establish ranger-protected havens within national parks, but by 2014 India’s tiger census showed the population had increased by only about 400 animals, prompting many to dub the effort a failure.
So in 2010, the Project Tiger team partnered with global conservation giant WWF and 12 other “tiger range countries” to launch the TX2 program, a push to double the number of wild tigers by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger. With sponsors supplying more funding—more than INR3.4 billion by 2017—project leaders deployed a new high-tech system to monitor tiger habitats more accurately. The outcome? A roaring success, according to the Indian government, which counted 2,967 wild tigers in the last census.
Those lessons learned are now being applied to Project Cheetah, with experts from the tiger initiative pulled in to help build out an extensive planning process and documentation. “Rarely can all the aspects of these guidelines be met in real-life situations, yet the action plan for the introduction of the cheetah in India addresses each of these in a pragmatic and scientific manner,” says Dr. S. P. Yadav of the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
Project Tiger landed at number 38 on PMI’s inaugural list of the Most Influential Projects, which celebrated PMI’s 50th anniversary by highlighting game-changing initiatives from 1969 to 2019. Watch the video and check out our update.