As It Happens

Cheetahs are returning to India after 70 years of extinction

Antelopes may be quaking in their split hooves in India, as one of the country’s apex predators is set to make its return from extinction. The speedy and deadly cheetah will be reintroduced to India, 70 years since being considered extinct there.

20 cheetahs will be flown from Johannesburg to Kuno National Park, and later released into the wild

A cheetah mid-swerve in the sand as an antelope leaps behind it.
A Thomson's gazelle leaps away from a cheetah's grip in a still from The Hunt, a series from the creators of Planet Earth. As the cheetah gets set to be reintroduced to the wild, Yadvendradev Jhala says the it will bring evolutionary benefits to the species' prey. (Grégoire Bouguereau/BBC America/The Associated Press)

Story Transcript

Antelopes may be quaking in their split hooves in India, as one of the country's apex predators is set to make its return from extinction. The speedy and deadly cheetah will be reintroduced to India, 70 years since being considered extinct there. 

"It's wonderful to get back a lost piece of the heritage which we have lost due to human causes," Yadvendradev Jhala, dean of the Wildlife Institute of India, told As It Happens guest host Paul Hunter.

"I've been working on it for quite a few years, almost 20 years now."

Soon, 20 cheetahs will be transported from South Africa and Namibia to India as part of the reintroduction efforts. The cats were mostly captured from reserves, as veterinarians fired tranquillizer darts from helicopters.

There's good reason for keeping one's distance. You don't want to get too close to a conscious cheetah after all, even if you are trying to help.

A man carrying what looks like a wrench and a plastic collar kneels next to an unconscious cheetah with a piece of cloth over its face.
Yadvendradev Jhala has been working to reintroduce cheetahs to India for the past 20 years. (Submitted by Yadvendradev Jhala)

Since then, the cats have been microchipped, given antibiotics, and tested and vaccinated for diseases. They are now in quarantined enclosures as they await their trip to their new home.

According to the BBC, the cheetahs will travel by cargo plane from Johannesburg to Delhi, then taken to Kuno National Park, a wildlife sanctuary in India's Madhya Pradesh state. 

Once there, the cheetahs will be quarantined for at least a month, then released into the wild. 

And after 20 years of work toward cheetah preservation, Jhala is looking forward to seeing the magnificent creature in India once more.

"It's something which is incredible. The speed is one aspect of it, but just the majesty of the animal itself, even if it's just striding along in the grassland, it's a gorgeous animal to see," said Jhala.

Hunted to extinction

A close-up of a cheetah's snarling face.
Cheetahs have been extinct in India for the past 70 years. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

According to Jhala, it's no mystery why the cheetah vanished from India's grasslands. During British rule, people were offered bounties to kill the creatures, in an effort to make the country safe from deadly predators. 

"The Eastern religions look upon nature as something which is under the custodianship of humans," said Jhala.

"That custodianship attitude was lost [when] the British arrived in the country and it became exploitative."

India won its independence from Britain in 1947, and the last cheetah was shot in that same year, said Jhala. The species was considered extinct in the country by 1952.

With that death, Jhala says an important part of Indian culture was lost.

"The word 'cheetah' is of Sanskrit origin. It originated in India.… there's mention of the cheetah in the ancient Vedas about 4,000 years ago. There are cave paintings done by Neolithic men," said Jhala.

"[The] Cheetah has been an integral part of Indian culture, heritage… and in the religion as well."

This isn't the first time India has tried to restart its cheetah population. In the 1970s, India proposed a trade of big cats; India would give Iran some of its lions in exchange for some Asiatic cheetahs. 

But when the last Shah of the Imperial State of Iran was overthrown, negotiations fell apart.

Doing what cheetahs do

An adult cheetah looks at two baby cheetahs sitting together in the grass.
For the reintroduction to be successful, the cheetahs will have to reproduce, says Jhala. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

Jhala says the key to successfully introducing the cheetahs to their new home will come down to their ability to get it on, if you catch the drift.

"Once they're released, we hope they'll do their stuff, what cheetahs do: pair up, reproduce and produce more cheetahs," said Jhala.

But the effort won't rely solely on their mating. Jhala hopes they can bring in anywhere from 35 to 50 into India over the next five years. 

"We want to capture the genetic variability which is found in these countries so that the population in India is genetically vibrant and we can establish a viable population in India," said Jhala.

This may seem like bad news for the Indian antelope, which is the cheetah's main source of food in the area. But Jhala says there are evolutionary benefits to being the superfast cats' prey. 

"What happens is the weak ones in the prey populations get weeded out. So it's a very important evolutionary force for herbivores. And that force of evolution, as nature intended it to be, needs to be restored," he explained. 


Written by Philip Drost. Interview produced by Samraweet Yohannes.

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