India’s top court has said cheetahs can be reintroduced to the wild, more than 70 years after it went extinct.
Responding to a plea by the government, the Supreme Court said African cheetahs could be introduced in a “carefully chosen location”.
Only 7,100 cheetahs are left in the wild, at least 90% of them in Africa.
Cheetahs are an endangered species, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).
The court said the animal would have to be introduced on an experimental basis to find out if it could adapt to Indian conditions.
Studies show that at least 200 cheetahs were killed in India, largely by sheep and goat herders, during the colonial period. It is the only large mammal to become extinct after the country gained independence in 1947.
India’s former environment minister Jairam Ramesh welcomed the decision to reintroduce the animal.
For more than a decade, wildlife officials, cheetah experts and conservationists from all over the world have discussed the reintroduction of the spotted big cat to India and have agreed that there is a strong case for it.
But leading conservationists have harboured doubts about the plan. They fear that in its haste to bring back the cheetah, India will end up housing the animals in semi-captive conditions in huge, secured open air zoos rather than allowing them to live free.
They add that without restoring habitat and prey base, and given the high chances of a man-animal conflict, viable cheetah populations cannot be established.
They have also pointed to India’s chequered record of reintroducing animals to the wild.
Lions were reintroduced in the Chandraprabha sanctuary in northern Uttar Pradesh state in the 1950s, but were then poached out of existence. Tigers were reintroduced in Dungarpur, Rajasthan, in the 1920s, but they were all shot dead by the end of the 1950s.
However, conservationists who have led the initiative insist that these fears are unfounded. They say a decision will only be taken after shortlisted sites are fully examined for habitat, prey and potential for man-animal conflict.
The first cheetah in the world to be bred in captivity was in India during the rule of Mughal emperor Jahangir. His father, Akbar, recorded that there were 10,000 cheetahs during his time.
Much later, research showed that were at least 230 cheetahs in India between 1799 and 1968 – and the cat was reportedly sighted for the last time in the country in 1967-68.