In an ambitious attempt to reintroduce the swift big cats to the nation, eight cheetahs will be brought to India where they will be personally welcomed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his birthday.
Asiatic cheetahs once lived in India, but the country declared the species extinct in 1952. The final three specimens are thought to have been slain by a royal.
However, since the Supreme Court said that African cheetahs, a different subspecies, might be settled in a “well-chosen location” on an experimental basis, New Delhi has been striving to reintroduce the animals.
The three females and five males from Namibia will initially be housed in a quarantine enclosure at the Kuno National Park in the state of Madhya Pradesh, which is located in the center of India.
India is also planning to ship in more cheetahs from South Africa at a later date.
“The prime minister himself will be releasing the animals into the quarantine enclosures,” an environment ministry official told AFP.
The cats will then be moved to larger spaces and once they acclimatize will be released into the open forest in the park.
Local media reports said the cheetahs will touch down in the western city of Jaipur after a 10-hour journey and will then travel by helicopter to the Kuno park.
Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said the project was part of global efforts to conserve the animal.
Modi’s presence for the launch “will give enthusiasm and energy to all of us,” he added.
Cheetahs became extinct in India primarily because of habitat loss and hunting for their distinctive spotted pelts.
An Indian prince, the Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo, is widely believed to have killed the last three recorded cheetahs in India in the late 1940s.
The incoming animals have been prepped for the journey with health check-ups, vaccinations and radio-collaring, the Indian Express newspaper reported.
Considered vulnerable under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, there are fewer than 7,000 cheetahs left around the world — primarily in the African savannas.