Cheetahs have been reintroduced to India – a controversial move that comes seven decades after they were declared extinct.

Eight of the big cats flew 5,000 miles from Namibia part of a 13-year project to restore the species to the country.

This is the first time animals have been moved across continents for release.

The eight radio-collared African cheetahs were taken to Kuno National Park in Central India with their arrival coinciding with the Indian Prime Minister’s 72nd birthday Narendra Modiwho released the first cat on Saturday.

Twelve more cheetahs are expected to join the group next month from South Africa in the hope that the population will eventually reach 40.

Experts said India’s cheetah extinction in 1952 was the only time the country had lost a large mammal species since independence and there was a “moral and ethical responsibility to bring it back”.

But some Indian conservationists have called the effort a “vain project” that ignores the fact that the African cheetah – a similar but distinct subspecies of the endangered Asiatic cheetah now found only in Iran – is not from the Indian subcontinent.

Scientists say modern India presents challenges that the cheetah – the world’s fastest land animal – did not face in the past.

Once the cheetahs move beyond Kuno’s unfenced boundaries, “they will be knocked out within six months by domestic dogs, by leopards,” said biologist Ullas Karanth, director of the Center for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru.

To prepare the cheetahs for success, authorities are relocating villagers from Bagcha near Kuno, while domestic dogs in the area are being vaccinated against diseases that could spread to cats.

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The cheetahs were released into Kuno National Park after a two-day trip from Namibia

Other experts say the promise to restore cheetahs in India – a venture that began in 2009 – is worth the challenges.

“Cheetahs play an important role in grassland ecosystems, herding prey across grasslands and preventing overgrazing,” said conservation biologist Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which leads the Namibian part of the project.

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The cheetahs – five females and three males – arrived after a two-day trip by plane and helicopter from the African savannah and will remain in a restricted area for several weeks before their wider release.

If all goes as planned, the cats will eventually be released to roam 5,000 km2 of forest and grassland, sharing the landscape with leopards, sloth bears and striped hyenas.

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