India to reintroduce cheetahs, 6 decades after they disappeared from the country's grasslands

NEW DELHI (AP) — The Indian government plans to import cheetahs from Africa and introduce them into the country's grasslands, six decades after the fleet-footed feline was hunted here until it disappeared, officials said Monday.

Two wildlife groups have already carried out a feasibility study on bringing the cats to three reserves that will total more than 4,500 square miles (about 12,000 square kilometers) in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan states, India's ministry of environment and forests said Monday.

The cheetah, the world's fastest land animal, roamed the wilds of central and western India until, in the face of relentless hunting by trophy-seekers and poachers, it vanished from here about 60 years ago.

The Asiatic cheetah — the sub-species that once lived in India — no longer exists in the wild, though some survive in zoos.

So scientists will import 18 wild cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa, said a ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The three wildlife habitats are now inhabited by small cattle farmers and shepherds, who would have to be relocated to other parts of the country. The government plans to spend around $6 million relocating inhabitants and readying the wildlife reserves, an official said.

Scientists expect that within two decades the cheetahs would number around 60, he said.

India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh said that bringing cheetahs back would help restore India's grasslands — as villagers would no longer be cutting the grass to use as fodder — and eventually help stabilize the populations of other endangered native species.

"The way the tiger restores the forest ecosystem, the snow leopard restores the mountain ecosystem, the Gangetic dolphin restores waters in the rivers, the cheetah will restore India's grasslands," Ramesh said.

But conservation experts were skeptical, citing India's poor record of protecting the tiger. Despite expensive protection campaigns, the Indian tiger population has dropped from nearly 3,600 seven years ago to about 1,400 today.

"We have been unable to save and protect big cats such as the tiger. I am not sure if it's wise to divert funds and attention from the big cats," said Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

Wright also questioned the wisdom of introducing an African sub-species of the cheetah. "If these were Asiatic cheetahs, the chances of survival would be greater," Wright said.