Prime Minister Narendra Modi will formally begin Project Cheetah on his 72nd birthday on September 17, when he releases three of the eight Namibian felines at the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh. While India was once home to the big cats, they were declared extinct in 1952, two years after the Prime Minister was born.

The Indian government, following proposals from Indian conservationists and the Cheetah Conservation Fund of Namibia, will reintroduce the majestic animal to Indian wilds 70 years after it went extinct. Project Cheetah will reintroduce almost 50 cheetahs across the country in the next five years, following a Supreme Court order and a MoU with Namibia.

Also Read: The journey of eight cheetahs from Namibia to India

Let’s take a look at how the Asiatic cheetah, once residents of India, became extinct in the country.

Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya, Surguja, of present-day Chattisgarh, killed three cheetahs in 1947, which are believed to be the last of the species in India. However, according to wildlife historian Raza Kazmi, he spotted a cheetah in 1975 in Jharkhand.

Cheetahs were companions of Mughal rulers in hunts back in the day. However, during British rule, the species were often dubbed ‘vermin’ and were hunted for bounties by the British administration in large numbers. As per historian Mahesh Rangarajan, cheetahs were killed for Rs. 6 for cubs and Rs. 18 for adults during British rule. These hunting led to a significant decrease in the cheetah population in India.

“Bounty-hunting, therefore, may have hastened, if not caused, its decline in many localities where it still survived,” Mahesh Rangarajan wrote in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society in 1998.

Also Read: PM Modi to release 8 cheetahs in Kuno National Park on 72nd birthday

“Given the relatively low density at which it existed, even the removal of a small number of animals could have had an adverse impact on the ability of wild populations to reproduce even at the minimal level essential for survival,” he added.

Project Cheetah is not the first time the animals are being brought to India. A few Princely states began bringing the felines from Africa to replenish the dwindling numbers of cheetahs in India. According to wildlife historians including Kazmi, the practice began in 1918 but was gone by the 1950s.