To set the cheetahs up for success, authorities are relocating villagers from Bagcha near Kuno. Officials have also been vaccinating domestic dogs in the area against diseases that could spread to the cats.
And wildlife officials have audited the park’s prey, ensuring enough spotted deer, blue bulls, wild boars and porcupines to sustain the cheetahs’ diet.
Indian Oil has pledged more than 500 million rupees (US$6.3 million) for the project over the next five years.
CATS DOGGED BY CONTROVERSY
Some Indian scientists say modern India presents challenges not faced by the animals in the past.
A single cheetah needs a lot of space to roam. A 100 sq km area can support six to 11 tigers, 10 to 40 lions, but only one cheetah.
Once the cheetahs move beyond Kuno’s unfenced boundaries, “they’ll be knocked out within six months by domestic dogs, by leopards”, said wildlife biologist Ullas Karanth, director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru.
“Or they’ll kill a goat, and villagers will poison them” in response.
Poaching fears stymied another project that involved a 2013 Supreme Court order to move some of the world’s last surviving Asiatic lions from their only reserve in the western Indian state of Gujarat to Kuno. Now, the cheetahs will take over that space.
“Cheetahs cannot be India’s burden,” said wildlife biologist Ravi Chellam, a scientific authority on Asiatic lions. “These are African animals found in dozens of locations. The Asiatic lion is a single population. A simple eyeballing of the situation shows which species has to be the priority.”
Other conservation experts say the promise of restoring cheetahs to India is worth the challenges.
“Cheetahs play an important role in grassland ecosystems,” herding prey through grasslands and preventing overgrazing, said conservation biologist Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund leading the Namibian side of the project.
Marker and her collaborators will help monitor the cats’ settlement, hunting and reproduction in the coming years.
Modi called for people to be patient as the cats adjust. “For them to be able to make Kuno National Park their home, we’ll have to give these Cheetahs a few months’ time.”