Six more cheetahs will be released into the wild at the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh by the end of the third week of June, The Indian Express reported on Thursday.
The cheetahs, including four males and two females, are currently in three separate hunting enclosures within the park.
The decision was taken by the Cheetah Steering Committee in its first meeting on Wednesday. The committee was constituted on May 26 after three out of the 20 cheetahs translocated from South Africa and Namibia and three cubs born in India died in the park in less than two months.
Experts have said that India does not have the habitat or prey species for African cheetahs and that the project may not fulfil its aim of grassland conservation. However, Cheetah Steering Committee head Dr Rajesh Gopal has said that the cheetah “deaths were found to be natural”.
On Thursday, Gopal said that the panel had found the arrangements, management and monitoring “satisfactory” at the park.
“We went around their enclosures and even saw two cheetahs,” he told The Indian Express. “They had killed a spotted deer. We spoke to the local officials in a long interaction about the details related to their security. We felt that this [the project] was going on the right track. No need for an alarm.”
Gopal also dismissed suggestions by a South African wildlife expert to fence two to three habitats for cheetahs or move them out of the park. The expert, Vincent van der Merwe, had warned that the project could see higher mortality in areas outside the fenced enclosures in the next few months.
“It’s absolutely bogus to think of fencing the habitats,” Gopal said, according to PTI. “It goes against the basic tenets of wildlife conservation.”
Meanwhile, Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said that the government takes full responsibility for the deaths of the cheetahs.
“It’s an international project and we had anticipated mortality,” Yadav said, according to NDTV. “One of the cheetahs was unwell before it even came to India. We have provided the reasons for the deaths of the two other cheetahs.”
The cheetahs were reintroduced to India seven decades after the species was declared extinct in the country. The cheetah was officially declared extinct by the Indian government in 1952. The wild cats were last recorded in the country in 1948, when three cheetahs were shot in the Sal forests in Chhattisgarh’s Koriya District.
In February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that India has a chance to restore an element of biodiversity that had been lost long ago by reintroducing the felines.