Cheetahs have been reintroduced to India – a controversial move that comes seven decades after being declared extinct.
Eight of the big cats were flown 5,000 miles from Namibia as part of a 13-year project to restore the species to the country.
It is the first time the animals have been moved across continents to be released.
The eight radio-collared African cheetahs were taken to Kuno National Park in central India with their arrival coinciding with the 72nd birthday of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who released the first cat on Saturday.
Another 12 cheetahs are expected to join the group next month from South Africa amid hopes the population will eventually reach 40.
Experts said the extinction of the cheetah in India in 1952 was the only time the country had lost a large mammal species since independence and there was a “moral and ethical responsibility to bring it back”.
But some Indian conservationists called the effort a “vanity project” that ignores the fact the African cheetah – a subspecies similar but separate from the endangered Asiatic cheetah now only found in Iran – is not native to the Indian subcontinent.
Scientists say modern India presents challenges not faced by the cheetah – the world’s fastest land animal – in the past.
Once the cheetahs move beyond Kuno’s unfenced boundaries, “they’ll be knocked out within six months by domestic dogs, by leopards”, said biologist Ullas Karanth, director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru.
To set the cheetahs up for success, authorities are relocating villagers from Bagcha near Kuno, while domestic dogs in the area are being vaccinated against diseases that could spread to the cats.
Other experts say the promise of restoring the cheetahs to India – a venture which started in 2009 – 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.
The cheetahs – five females and three males – arrived after a two-day plane and helicopter journey from the African savannah and will remain in a restricted area for several weeks before their wider release.
If all goes as planned, the cats will eventually be released to run through 5,000 square km (2,000 square miles) of forest and grassland, sharing the landscape with leopards, sloth bears and striped hyenas.