For the first time in 70 years, the forests of India will be home to cheetahs.
Eight of them are due to arrive in August from Namibia, home to one of the world’s largest wildcat populations.
Their return comes decades after India’s indigenous people were officially declared extinct in 1952.
The fastest land animal in the world, the cheetah can reach speeds of 113 km/h.
Classified as an endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, only around 7,000 remain in the wild worldwide.
Officials announced the agreement after working for the past two years on how to transport the animals after India’s Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that they could be reintroduced at a “carefully chosen location”.
The first arrivals will make their home in the state of Madhya Pradesh in Kuno Palpur National Park, chosen for its cheetah-friendly terrain.
The timing of the move is expected to come as the nation celebrates 75 years of independence.
“The conclusion of 75 glorious years of independence with the restoration of India’s fastest terrestrial flagship species, the cheetah, will reignite the ecological dynamism of the landscape,” India’s Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said in a social media post.
Despite the animal’s lightning-fast speed, a combination of hunting, habitat loss and food shortages led to the cheetah’s disappearance in India. It is the only large mammal to have gone extinct in the country since gaining independence from British rule.
The Asiatic cheetah was once found in areas stretching from the Arabian Peninsula to Afghanistan.
It is now known to survive only in Iran. In 2022, government officials there reported believing only 12 were alive.
Efforts have been made to revive India’s cheetah populations since the 1950s. An attempt to bring them out of Iran in the 1970s – when Iran owned about 300 of the animals – fell through after negotiations ended when the Shah was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution.
Indian officials are keen on this latest attempt at long-term success.
“The main objective of the cheetah reintroduction project is to establish a viable cheetah metapopulation in India, which will enable the cheetah to fulfill its functional role as a top predator,” said the country’s Ministry of Environment.