Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) may be the world's fastest land mammal, but that hasn't helped them escape their worst enemy: humans. The big cats have been hunted to extinction in 15 countries, and their remaining African and Asian populations currently face genetic weaknesses, such as low sperm counts and deformed tails, because of inbreeding.

Now, controversial efforts are underway to return the cheetah to India, the nation that gave the species its name (citrakaya in Sanskrit). Minister of Environment & Forests Jairam Ramesh has vowed to reintroduce the cats, which were hunted to extinction in India 60 years ago. "The only mammal to go extinct since independence in India is [the] cheetah," Ramesh recently said during a Parliamentany meeting. "We plan to bring the cheetah back."

Unfortunately, local governments appear reluctant to set aside the amount of land that would be necessary for the cheetah to survive in the wild. "I don't think it's a wise idea," said R. N. Mehrotra, chief wildlife warden for the Indian state of Rajasthan, at a meeting of the Wildlife Trust of India's (WTI) Cheetah Reintroduction Project held last week to discuss the feasibiliy of reintroducing the species. International cheetah experts and representatives of several conservation NGOs also attended the meeting.

But others feel that returning cheetahs to India will not only help the species, but a broad range of the Indian ecosystem. "If the project succeeds, we will not only be returning the species to India, but will also be securing grasslands, which despite being the most productive are also among the least studied and excessively abused of Indian habitats, [as well as] a number of endangered species that survive within these habitats," said M. K. Ranjitsinh, chairman of the WTI, which organized the meeting.

Two major questions remain: Where would the cheetahs go, and where would they come from? Iran, which is home to the last 100 critically endangered Asiatic cheetah subspecies (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) has already turned down a request to give some of its few remaining cats to India. Ramesh recently announced he will seek cheetahs from Kenya, South Africa or Namibia.

The plan, as described at last week's meeting, would start with five to 10 African cheetahs, which would be kept in semiwild enclosures until they adapted to their new environments.

Reintroducing cheetahs to India is still months or years away. WTI and and the Wildlife Institute of India will now work on a formal plan to submit to the government for approval while additional studies of potential habitats are conducted.

Image of cheetah via Wikipedia Commons