Inside the controversial plan to reintroduce cheetahs to India

Imported African cheetahs will be the first to roam India in decades, but critics of the project say the big cats have little chance of survival without ongoing human intervention.

Cheetahs (pictured, an animal at the Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa) were last seen in India in the 1940s.

Even as a student, Yadvendradev Jhala dreamed of the day when cheetahs would once again roam India. The big cats formerly shared the landscape with tigers, leopards, lions and wolves, but they disappeared 70 years ago as human development and hunting ramped up.

“This is the only large animal that we have lost in independent India,” says Jhala, dean of the Wildlife Institute of India. “I’ve always been interested in reintroducing cheetahs to India.”

If all goes according to plan, Jhala could soon see that vision become a reality. Eight cheetahs are scheduled to arrive in India from Namibia later this month, in celebration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s birthday on September 17, and 12 more are due from South Africa around October 10. After undergoing a month-long quarantine, they will be released in Kuno National Park, a 289-square-mile protected area about 200 miles south of Delhi.

Proponents of the project say the cheetahs’ presence will strengthen both conservation efforts and the local economy. 

“The cheetah is a magnificent animal, it’s a big magnet for ecotourism,” Jhala says. “If you bring in cheetah, the government will put funds into rehabilitating and rewilding these systems, and all the biodiversity will thrive.”

The project will also potentially be a boon for the species overall: Only around 7,100 cheetahs remain in the wild today, and Jhala and others say that adding India back as a range state will help grow the big cat’s numbers. Asiatic cheetahs, the subspecies that formerly occurred in India, now only survives in a tiny population in Iran.

Some experts contend, however, that the reintroduction plan is premature. Any cheetahs released into the park will quickly stray outside its boundaries, they warn, where the big cats will likely be killed by people or dogs or succumb to starvation.

“I’m not against the project, I’m against this very tunnel vision thing of just bringing cheetahs and dumping them in the middle of India where there are 360 people per square kilometer,” says Ullas Karanth, emeritus director for the nonprofit Center for Wildlife Studies and a specialist in large carnivores. “It’s putting the cart before the horse.”

“There’s not any chance for free-ranging cheetah populations now,” adds Arjun Gopalaswamy, an independent conservation scientist who has conducted research on big cats in Africa and India. Cheetahs in India “perished for a reason,” he says, and that reason—human pressure—has only gotten worse in the 70 years since the species disappeared. “So the first question is, Why is this attempt even being made?”

Jhala counters, however, that this type of outlook is too focused on the “nitty gritty” details rather than the larger good that cheetahs can bring to India, such as boosting investment and protection in ecosystems that support the big cats, and building up local economies.

“It’s a restoration and rewilding project for the planet,” he says. “I don’t see anything that can be a contradiction to such a noble goal.”

Decades-long dream

Like many predators, cheetahs today occupy only a fraction of their historic range. A little over a century ago, they prowled the grasslands and open forests of much of Africa, Arabia, and India. Cheetahs are more docile than most other big cat species, and in India, the royalty used them for hunting—the feline equivalent of falcons or dogs.

By the mid-19th century, India’s cheetah numbers had severely dwindled—to the point that they were having to be imported from Africa for hunting. Some had been captured or shot for sport, but mostly, it seems that the growing human population was responsible for the species’ decline. People retaliated against the big cats for killing goats and sheep, and dogs attacked cheetah cubs and adults. In 1947, the Maharaja of Korawi shot three cheetahs—likely the last definitive sighting of the species in India. (See why cheetahs are at risk—and how people are protecting them.)

By 1952, Indian politicians and scientists were calling for a “bold experimentation to preserve the cheetah,” according to records from the country’s first wildlife board meeting. Indian officials came close to reintroducing cheetahs in the 1970s by negotiating to exchange some of India’s lions for Iran’s cheetahs, but the deal fell apart in the lead-up to the Iranian Revolution.

In 2009, the idea was revived, and eventually greenlit, when India organized a closed meeting of officials and scientists to discuss bringing cheetahs back. Proponents said that reintroducing the species would restore a now-vacant ecological niche. While leopards, tigers, and lions ambush their prey—attacking the closest animal to them, regardless of its fitness level—cheetahs specialize in picking off the weakest animals. That type of predation, which keeps prey populations healthy by weeding out the sickest individuals, has been largely missing in India since cheetahs disappeared, proponents say. (Read more about how cheetahs hunt.)

Even in 2009, though, not everyone was in favor of moving forward. “Some of us pointed out that it’s not ecologically viable,” recalls Karanth, who was not invited to the meeting, he says, because he criticized the plan. 

“But there are some conservationists who have really been pushing this, and they convinced the previous environment minister that he’ll become very famous if he brings the cheetah back.” 

“It’s very difficult to understand the motivation for this project from a scientific point of view,” adds Gopalaswamy. “But from an attention-seeking point of view, I can see a lot of sense.”

Jhala counters that the project is being driven by more than just public relations, but “whatever the motives may be, it doesn’t matter as long as conservation is happening on the ground.”

Tasked with identifying sites for a possible reintroduction, Jhala and colleagues honed in on Kuno, and by 2012, negotiations were underway with Namibia to import a first batch of cheetahs. But then, the Indian Supreme Court intervened, passing a judgment stating that Kuno should be prioritized for reintroducing Asiatic lions rather than cheetahs, and that any cheetahs eventually brought to India should come from Iran, not Africa.

The judgement proved impossible to carry out. Only around 600 Asiatic lions remain in India, all of which live in just one state, Gujarat. Experts agree that having all the lions in one place leaves the species vulnerable to extinction and that it would be prudent to expand their range to other parts of the country. 

But “in typical Indian style,” Karanth says, politicians in Gujarat were not willing to give up their monopoly on the species and share lions with another state. The Gujarat Forest Department did not respond to a request for comment.  

Lions were out for Kuno, and reintroducing Iranian cheetahs to the park was also a dead end. The 30 or so wild Asiatic cheetahs in Iran will likely be extinct soon, not least because Iran’s six leading cheetah scientists were jailed in 2016 on charges of spying.

For the reintroduction plan, then, it would be African cheetahs or nothing. In 2020, the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the government group tasked with managing India’s tigers, petitioned the Supreme Court for permission to move forward with the estimated $28 million plan to bring African cheetahs to India. The court acquiesced. After decades of effort, India, it seemed, would finally see cheetahs again.

Cheetah "control tower"

When Jhala reached out to Vincent van der Merwe, a South African cheetah conservationist, about the possibility of sourcing cheetahs from South Africa, van der Merwe enthusiastically agreed to collaborate. 

“It was a prestigious project,” he says. “Cheetahs used to be in India, and they should be back in India.”

At the time, van der Merwe worked for the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South African nonprofit, where he ran the Cheetah Metapopulation Project. The project came into being as a way to maintain cheetahs in a human-dominated landscape that otherwise would not permit their survival. In large, unfenced protected areas like Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, cheetahs maintain home ranges of up to 386 square miles and occur at low densities of just one or two animals per 40 square miles

In most places in South Africa, however, development stands in the way of the species’ natural dispersal, and heavily managed, fenced reserves paid for by tourism—which van der Merwe calls “the fortress approach” to conservation—has been the “secret to success,” he says. “If it’s not fenced, they don’t reproduce and they move out.”

Van der Merwe’s job entails moving cheetahs from one place to another to replace individuals that die and to ensure healthy gene flow. “I’m like a control tower,” he says. From 2011 to 2022, he helped grow the Cheetah Metapopulation Project from 217 cheetahs on 40 reserves to 504 cheetahs on 69 reserves.

For van der Merwe, who is also a National Geographic Explorer, expanding the project to India was a chance to build on those successes. It was also a solution to the never-ending challenge of what to do with excess cheetahs born on reserves with limited carrying capacities, or with ones that wander onto farms and need to be relocated. “People are phoning me all the time, ‘There’s too many cheetahs here,’” he says. “I’m under constant pressure to move animals.” 

As van der Merwe quickly learned, however, even in Africa, “the conservation community is very divided by this reintroduction.”

Van der Merwe had originally hoped to source a few cheetahs for the India project from Liwonde National Park in Malawi, where he and his colleagues reintroduced the species in 2017. “Malawi is quite lush, with a resemblance to India,” he says.

But he quickly ran into opposition from other conservationists, and, in July, he decided to resign from the Endangered Wildlife Trust. 

Van der Merwe then founded his own nonprofit, the Metapopulation Initiative, to continue both his cheetah work and collaboration with Jhala and colleagues. “I wanted the freedom to run my own project and expand as was required,” he says. 

“Worth the risk”

Van der Merwe was particular about the 12 South African cheetahs he selected to be the founding population for India, choosing animals that were born in the wild, grew up alongside other predators, and were accustomed to humans monitoring them by foot or vehicle. Those cheetahs, along with, most likely, eight from Namibia (the numbers are still being confirmed), were originally scheduled to make the journey to India in August. But the date has been postponed several times.

The relocation is now tentatively scheduled for mid-September for the Namibian cheetahs and October for the South African ones (the South African government still needs to sign off on the project). If all goes according to plan, the 20 cheetahs will stay in a fenced area at Kuno for a month or so before being released into the park. “When we open the gates, every cheetah is on his own,” van der Merwe says.

Once released, though, the big cats will almost certainly walk out of the unfenced park, “and then they’ll have a hell of a problem,” Karanth says. “The cheetahs will get trashed and killed very quickly because there’s nothing outside of Kuno—it’s villages, dogs, and farms.”

S.P. Yadav, the additional director general of India’s Tiger Authority, points out that all of the cheetahs will be equipped with tracking collars and monitored 24-7. “So if they walk away, we’ll bring them back,” he says.

Communities surrounding the park are on board with the reintroduction plan, he adds, because the cheetahs are expected to bring an influx of tourist dollars. They “are expecting a turnaround in the economy,” Yadav says.

However, van der Merwe did not dispute Karanth’s prediction. “We’ll lose a tremendous amount of animals, we know this,” he says.

Given this likelihood, he continues, the focus in India should be on the long-term plan to regularly supply cheetahs from Africa until the species gets a foothold—a goal that will require a minimum of 500 to a thousand individuals. If a cheetah population is successfully established in India, then given the density of humans there, the country’s cheetahs will have to be heavily managed, with animals exchanged between reserves and even continents.

Gopalaswamy, however, criticizes this approach as being unsustainable. “This sort of stop-gap arrangement involves this very expensive and complex process of continuously translocating individual animals, essentially trying to mimic nature,” he says. “In my view, it’s quite distant from what cheetah conservation is all about.”

But to van der Merwe, it’s simply the reality of wildlife conservation today. In most places, he points out, “long gone are the wide-open spaces for wildlife to roam freely,” and intensive management is the only solution for maintaining large predators there. “I believe that these first reintroductions into India have the potential to open doors for cheetah-conservation efforts, to create considerably more safe space for the species,” he says. “Of course, there is a very real risk of failure, but I feel it’s worth the risk.”

As for Jhala, he’s heard no opposition to the project from Indian politicians or the public—only from fellow conservationists. “The worst enemies for conservation are conservationists,” he says. “Once it’s done and people see the success of it, I think all of them will come around.”

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