New Delhi: The Indian government plans to import cheetahs from Africa and introduce them into the country's grasslands, six decades after the fleet-footed feline was hunted here until it disappeared, officials said yesterday.

Two wildlife groups have already carried out a feasibility study on bringing the cats to three reserves that will total more than 4,500 square miles in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan states, India's ministry of environment and forests said.

The cheetah, the world's fastest land animal, roamed the wilds of central and western India until, in the face of relentless hunting by trophy-seekers and poachers, it vanished from here about 60 years ago.

The Asiatic cheetah — the sub-species that once lived in India — no longer exists in the wild, though some survive in zoos.

So scientists will import 18 wild cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa, said a ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

The three wildlife habitats are now inhabited by small cattle farmers and shepherds, who would have to be relocated to other parts of the country. The government plans to spend around $6 million relocating inhabitants and readying the wildlife reserves, an official said.

Scientists expect that within two decades the cheetahs would number around 60, he said.

India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh said that bringing cheetahs back would help restore India's grasslands — as villagers would no longer be cutting the grass to use as fodder.