South Africa is flying cheetahs to India and Mozambique as part of efforts to reintroduce the distinctively spotted cats in regions where their population has dwindled.
Four cheetahs captured at reserves in South Africa have been flown to Mozambique this week after being held in quarantine for about a month and cleared for travel.
Conservationists are preparing to fly 12 more cheetahs, reputed to be the world’s fastest land mammals, to India next month.
Speaking shortly after the cheetahs going to Mozambique were tranquilized and placed into crates, wildlife veterinarian Andy Frasier told reporters that the relocations are tough for the animals.
“It’s a very stressful process for the cats to be in a boma [livestock enclosure] environment because they have nowhere to go whilst we are darting them,” Frasier said of shooting the cats with darts of tranquilizers. “We need to use our drug doses very carefully and make sure that we give them enough drugs to anesthetize them safely.”
“They have woken up nicely in their crates and they are all relaxed enough that we are happy for them to leave in their transport,” he said.
The team is preparing for the larger and more challenging relocation of cheetahs to India, which would require the cats to travel a much longer distance with stops in commercial airports, Frasier said.
Those cheetahs would be treated with a tranquilizer that lasts for three to five days during their travel, he said.
There are two subspecies of cheetahs. Those that once roamed in Asia were declared extinct in India in 1952 and are now found only in Iran.
Since then there have been efforts to reintroduce these cats to India’s savannahs.
Initially the plan was to bring in cheetahs from Iran, but now they are being moved from southern African countries.
In this restocking effort, Namibia is contributing eight cheetahs, which are to be flown to India this month, said Vincent van der Merwe, manager of the Cheetah Metapopulation Initiative.
South Africa would send an additional 12 cheetahs to India next month, he said.
“For a genetically viable population in India in the long-term you need at least 500 individuals, so every year we will send eight to 12 animals, to top them up, to increase numbers, to bring in new genetics until they have a viable population,” Van der Merwe said.
Indian officials say that the move would aid global cheetah conservation efforts, as their range in Africa is limited.
The plan is for the cats to be kept in large enclosures in central Indian forests, protected from other predators such as leopards and bears, to give them time to get used to their new home.
The enclosures have prey — including deer and antelope — which scientists hope the cheetahs would hunt.
After a few months of close monitoring, the cheetahs would be radio-collared and released.
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