KUNO NATIONAL PARK, India - Cheetahs once prowled India among lions, tigers and leopards. They appear in ancient Hindu texts and in cave paintings, and are woven into centuries-old tapestries. The Mughal emperor Akbar kept 1,000 cheetahs in his stables.
But for 75 years - the entirety of its existence as an independent nation - India has been bereft of cheetahs, the world's fastest land animal.
That changed Saturday, when eight cheetahs arrived in India after a flight from Africa, initiating a great untried experiment for the world: whether a top predator population can be brought back to life in a place where it was long ago hunted into extinction.
The big cats boarded a Boeing 747 in Namibia on Friday and arrived in India on Saturday morning. Next, they will be flown by military helicopter to their new home, Kuno National Park, in a lush river valley where yellow butterflies flutter over miles of greenery in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
"It is the only large mammal that India has lost," said Mr S.P. Yadav, secretary of India's National Tiger Conservation Authority.
"It is our moral and ethical responsibility to bring them back," he said.
The plan to return cheetahs to India dates almost to the time of their extinction in the country, and it represents a bold and uncertain attempt to ensure the animals' survival by redistributing them from Africa, where their population is in sharp decline.
The project also reflects the muscular nationalism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is bringing to bear India's growing wealth and scientific knowledge.
The cats' entry was timed for Mr Modi's 72nd birthday, which he planned to celebrate Saturday by witnessing their release into a soft enclosure at Kuno.
A huge convoy of politicians, supporters and Indian Oil representatives - as well as thousands of police officers for the prime minister's security - filed down the single-lane highway into the remote park for the event.
The cheetah species dates back about 8.5 million years, and the animals were once found in great numbers across Africa, Arabia and Asia. They now live exclusively in Africa, other than a tiny population in Iran.
Their population is estimated to be fewer than 8,000, down by half over the past four decades.
With habitat loss and other dangers leaving cheetahs vulnerable to extinction in Africa, many conservationists argue that it is wise to resettle some of the animals.
India's government will spend roughly US$11 million (S$15.5 million), with support from Indian Oil, on the project over the next five years.
The eight cheetahs were a gift from the government of Namibia. The plan is to translocate batches of cheetahs from southern Africa until India achieves a population of around 40.
"We should be thinking of the global cheetah population as a single fragmented population that needs to be conserved," said Dr Adrian Tordiffe, a wildlife veterinarian in South Africa who is helping to prepare a second batch of 12 cheetahs that India hopes to receive next month.
Apart from the cheetahs in South Africa's national parks, some 500 of the animals are managed in privately owned reserves. As their numbers have grown, they have been exported to other African countries.
"If animals are not removed and relocated in this way, then reserves will become overcrowded and prey species numbers will suffer," Dr Tordiffe said.
"What cheetahs need more than anything is protected space," he added. "India offers a wonderful opportunity for the cheetah in terms of protected space."
A 'PR exercise'?
Still, some experts wonder if India has enough of it for the cheetahs to thrive.
Kuno National Park was supposed to be the second home of some of the last remaining Asiatic lions. Prominent big-cat experts say the area is more suitable for those animals, which live together in prides, than for cheetahs, which in ideal conditions spread out over thousands of square kilometres.
Extensive work was done to restore the park's ecosystem for lions, including paying the residents of some two dozen villages to relocate. But then the government of the state of Gujarat, where all the Asiatic lions live, opposed more being moved there, and the effort stalled.
A plan to bring in cheetahs from Namibia was blocked by India's Supreme Court in 2013. Two years ago, though, the court ruled that cheetahs could be imported on an experimental basis. In that time, some scientists say, inadequate preparations have been made for the new inhabitants.
The cheetahs' arrival was delayed, in part, as wildlife workers struggled to catch and move the area's leopards.
"This project is putting the cart before the horse," said Mr Ullas Karanth, a conservation zoologist at the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru.
The animals "will have high mortalities, and a constant supply of new cheetahs will be involved", he added. "I do not see this 'rewilding' of free-ranging cheetahs in India. It is more of a PR exercise." NYTIMES