By: Shubham Ghosh
The “historic” relocation of 12 cheetahs from South Africa to India on Saturday (18) is a measure of “goodwill” between the two BRICS partners to share the gene pool to ensure the survival of a species, senior officials from both countries have said.
India originally initiated plans to bring the cheetahs to the country by mid-2022, but a delay in finalising a Memorandum of Understanding between the two governments led to a postponement, with the animals continuing with their quarantine at a reserve in Limpopo province.
“This is a historic MoU. It is a transcontinental location from wild to wild. Normally animals do move, but this has been a challenge for both countries,” said Dr Amit Mallick, Inspector-General of the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
Flora Mokgohloa, deputy director general for Biodiversity and Conservation in the South African department of forestry, fishing and the environment, said the financial value of the cheetahs being sent to India by South Africa was immeasurable.
“It is the amount of goodwill that is generated between two BRICS partners with a long shared history that should be considered rather. No value can be put on the public good of sharing the gene pool with other countries to ensure the survival of a species,” she said.
BRICS is an acronym for five leading emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
The officials were addressing the media on Thursday amid preparations in South Africa’s Limpopo province to translocate the cheetahs — seven male and five female — to India. They will arrive at the Gwalior Air Force base on an IAF carrier on Saturday.
“This project is very important and very prestigious as far as India is concerned. The whole objective is the establishment of a metapopulation in a place where the cheetah is the only mega carnivore that India has lost since independence in 1947,” Mallick said.
A metapopulation consists of a group of spatially separated populations of the same species which interact at some level.
Mallick said Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been monitoring the process since eight cheetahs were brought to India from Namibia last year, adding that there had been a lot of learnings from the experience with the Namibian cats which would be applied to the ones being taken from South Africa now.
He said the Namibian cheetahs were behaving in a natural way after their acclimatisation process.
“In India, we don’t have fenced perimeter areas. They are all free ranging. Ten days from now, the first two or three cats would go free-ranging amid the monitoring processes. Training for staff and exchange of expertise and learning between veterinarians from both countries will also start to enable capacity building.
“India is home to more than 70 per cent of the wild tiger population in the world, so we do have immense expertise on big cats in terms of active management and moving animals from low-density to high-density areas,” said Mallick, adding that Madhya Pradesh, where the new cheetahs are first going to, also has vast experience.
“We are very optimistic about the next phase, where we are going to lead the animals into free-ranging,” he said.
The habitat that we see in many parts of South Africa is absolutely similar to India, he said.
“All that has been addressed in a very robust scientific action plan which has been done in consultation with the Wildlife Institute of India,” said Mallick.
The two officials also commented on reports that under the Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries, South Africa would send 10 more cheetahs to India annually.
“Africa has a very scientific system of assessing the number of cheetahs which can be exported or moved. Considering that and also the requirements in India, it does not mean that 10 has to go or 50 cheetahs have to reach (India from South Africa),” Mallick said.
“The MoU is very clear and there is not a specific number mentioned. It does not mean that there is a continuous process and (cheetahs) just go every year on the 1st of January,” he said.
Mokgohloa said South Africa plays a very active role in the range expansion of species.
“We believe that by expanding this range or this type of species we are able to increase the diversity and grow the populations, not only here at home, but in states where the animals are being translocated to,” she said.
Mokgohloa said that the scientists from South Africa would be involved in periodic assessments as to how well the cheetahs were established in India.
“Our own assessments indicate that these cheetahs will be able to adapt to conditions in India. We will be getting reports on a regular basis and discussing with our Indian counterparts at every stage in terms of what is the progress; what are we observing. Obviously, for the next batch the decisions in terms of how many can be translocated will then be based on these assessments,” she said.
“The suitability of the areas where we are going to introduce the cheetah has also been assessed. The preparations on our side for receiving the 12 cheetahs are all in place,” Mallick added.
Mallick said experts who are accompanying the cheetahs and others who have been invited will participate in a workshop on February 20 to understand management systems and the way forward.
“This will also give an opportunity for our field workers to interact and have a forward-looking management action plan,” he said.
The cheetahs will depart from O R Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on Friday evening and are expected to arrive at Gwalior Air Force base in Madhya Pradesh on Saturday morning before being transported shortly thereafter to Sheopur.
Heavy lift helicopters, with closed doors, have been made available by the Indian Air Force for this purpose.