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India is considering importing cheetahs from northern Africa due to concerns that some of these big cats from Namibia and South Africa have developed a winter coat in Indian summer, officials said on Wednesday.

According to officials, one of the biggest challenges faced in the first year of managing cheetahs in India was the unexpected development of winter coats by some cheetahs during the Indian summer and monsoon, in anticipation of the African winter (June to September).

Even African experts did not expect it, a senior forest official said.

The winter coat, combined with high humidity and temperatures, caused itching, prompting the animals to scratch their necks on tree trunks or the ground. This led to bruises and exposed skin, where flies laid their eggs, resulting in maggot infestations and, ultimately, bacterial infections and septicaemia, leading to the death of three cheetahs, the official explained.

“Cheetahs in northern and north-eastern Africa, which is in the northern hemisphere, might be better suited to Indian conditions. This idea is being deliberated, but we are yet to examine the status of the cheetahs in this part of Africa. We need to look at their populations, health conditions, breeding cycle, etc,” an official associated with the cheetah project said on condition of anonymity.

Several international experts, including in the UK and the US, have imported cheetahs from northern Africa. They have recommended that India do the same, the official said.

SP Yadav, the head of Project Cheetah and Additional Director General (Forests) in the Environment Ministry, said: “The idea that we may have cheetahs from northern Africa in the future has been discussed but the next batch will come from South Africa.” He said India plans to import cheetahs that do not develop thicker winter coats — a primary factor behind severe infections in some cheetahs and the death of three of them.

Historically, cheetahs were found in parts of northern Africa, but their populations in this region have significantly declined, and they are now considered extinct or nearly extinct in many northern African countries.

Currently, the few remaining cheetahs in northern Africa are primarily found in small and isolated populations, mainly in protected areas and national parks. Some of the countries where cheetahs are still found, though in smaller numbers, include Algeria, Egypt, Niger and Mali.

A total of 20 animals were imported from Namibia and South Africa to Kuno in two batches — one in September last year and the second in February this year.

Since March, six of these adult cheetahs have died due to various reasons. In May, three of the four cubs born to a female Namibian cheetah succumbed to extreme heat. The remaining cub is being raised under human care for future wildling.

Abdul Gh Lone