Cheetahs from South Africa go to parks in India, Mozambique

BELA-BELA, South Africa (AP) — South Africa is flying cheetahs to India and Mozambique as part of ambitious efforts to reintroduce the distinctively spotted cats to areas where their populations have declined.

Four cheetahs captured in reserves in South Africa were flown to Mozambique this week after being quarantined for about a month and allowed to travel. Conservationists are preparing to fly 12 more cheetahs, reputed to be the world’s fastest land mammals, to India in October.

Speaking to The Associated Press shortly after those going to Mozambique were tranquilized and placed in crates, wildlife veterinarian Andy Frasier said relocations are difficult for the animals.

“It’s a very stressful process for cats to be in a boma (animal enclosure) environment because they have nowhere to go while we’re corralling them,” Frasier said of shooting the cats with tranquilizer darts.

“We have to use our drug doses very carefully and make sure we give them enough drugs to safely stun them,” he said.

“They’ve woken up nicely in their crates and they’re all relaxed enough that we’re glad they’re going away in their transport,” he said.

Frasier said the team is preparing for the largest and most demanding cheetah relocation in India, which will require the cats to travel a much longer distance with stops at commercial airports.

Those cheetahs will be treated with a sedative that lasts for three to five days during their trip, he said.

There are two subspecies of cheetah. Those that once roamed Asia were declared extinct in India in 1952 and today are found only in Iran. Efforts have since been made to reintroduce these cats to the savannahs of India. Initially the plan was to bring cheetahs from Iran but now they are brought from South African countries.

To this resupply effort, Namibia is contributing eight cheetahs that will be flown to India this month, according to Vincent van der Merwe, director of the Cheetah Metapopulation Initiative. South Africa will send an additional 12 cheetahs to India in October, he said.

“For a genetically sustainable population in India in the long term you need at least 500 individuals, so every year we will send eight to 12 animals, to supplement them, increase the numbers, bring in new genetics until they have a sustainable population,” said van der Merwe .

Indian officials say the move will help global cheetah conservation efforts, as their range in Africa is limited. The plan is to keep the cats in large enclosures in central Indian forests, protected from other predators such as leopards or bears, to give them time to get used to their new home. The enclosures hold prey – such as deer and antelope – which scientists hope the cheetahs will hunt. After a few months of close monitoring, the cheetahs will be radio-collared and released.

The southern African countries of South Africa, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe still have significant cheetah populations and are expected to play a major role in reintroducing them to India after the first shipments this year.

South Africa’s cheetah population is expanding at a rate of about 8 percent a year, allowing the country to transfer about 30 of the cats to other game reserves in South Africa and export some to other countries, van der Merwe said.

Conservationists say Mozambique’s Zambezi River Delta used to have a significant population of cheetahs, which were drastically reduced by rampant poaching and because lions and leopards preyed on the smaller cats.

In this week’s operation, the two male and two female adult cheetahs were tranquilized in South Africa’s northern Limpopo province and then transferred to Mozambique’s Marromeu National Reserve in the Zambezi Delta region.

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Magome contributed from Johannesburg. AP reporter Aniruddha Ghosal in New DeIhi, India, contributed.

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