With tigers getting the spotlight, is poaching of leopards increasing in the blind spot?

  • Leopards have the highest protection under India’s wildlife laws but are facing threats of poaching, habitat loss and conflict with humans.
  • As per the central government’s data, at least 260 cases of poaching of leopard were recorded across India during 2015-2018.
  • However, experts believe the actual number could be much more with a non-governmental organisation working on the wildlife issues estimating that there have been over 4,500 cases of poaching of leopards in the last 25 years.

With tigers, lions and elephants grabbing the limelight in India’s wildlife conservation sector, other mammals such as leopards usually remain in the shadows. But they face a similar, if not a higher, threat of poaching and human-wildlife conflict. In the last four years alone, at least 260 leopards were poached across India.

The total number of deaths of leopards, including those killed in human-wildlife conflict, is much higher.

“Based on the information provided by State Enforcement Agencies, total number of leopard poached during 2015, 2016 and 2017 are 194 and in current year till October 2018 is 66,” Mahesh Sharma, Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change informed the Parliament in reply to a query in December 2018.

Source: Government of India. Chart by Kartik Chandramouli.

As per the official data, 64 cases of leopard poaching were recorded in India in 2015, 83 in 2016 and 47 in 2017. In 2018, data available till October indicates that there has been an upswing, with 66 cases of leopard poaching.

Of the 260 leopards poached during 2015-2018 (till October), 134 cases, which is more than 50 percent of the total, were recorded from Uttarakhand (60),  Himachal Pradesh (49) and Chhattisgarh (25) alone.

Sharma told the Parliament that “management and protection of wildlife including leopard is primarily the responsibility of the concerned State/ Union Territory governments” and stressed that information on the killing of leopards by villagers is not collated by the union environment ministry.

The leopard (Panthera pardus) is among the protected animals such as tigers, lions, and elephants under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Their population is also considered “vulnerable” under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List and is noted to have a “decreasing” trend.

WWF-India notes that, in India, the leopards are found in all forest types, from “tropical rainforests to temperate deciduous and alpine coniferous forests” to “dry scrubs and grasslands” with the only exception being “desert and the mangroves of Sundarbans”.

According to the Wildlife Institute of India’s (WII) estimation, the population of leopards in India is between 12,000 and 14,000.

Sharma highlighted that the Indian government has taken a series of steps for protecting leopards, such as strict vigil by law enforcement authorities in the states, against poaching of wild animals, including leopards, setting up of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau to gather intelligence about poaching and unlawful trade in wild animals, intensified patrolling in and around protected forest areas and financial assistance to states for providing better protection to wildlife including leopards and improvement of habitat.

But leopards are not confined to protected areas and they survive very easily in semi-urban and even urban habitations.

“For instance, in north Bengal, a leopard collared by us stayed in an isolated patch of degraded forest land for months without any villager detecting his presence. Villagers had no idea about him but we knew about him as we were constantly monitoring his movements. He stayed there for a really long time,” said S. Sathyakumar, who is a senior scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India.

In India, leopards are facing multiple threats like poaching, habitat loss and conflict with humans. Photo by Suriajay88/Wikimedia Commons.

“The leopards are found everywhere including semi-urban agricultural habitats and even in urban areas. Cases of leopards coming into human habitations are well documented across India. It is mainly because of their diet which includes even a small animal like a rat. They are happy to survive on street dogs or jungle fowl. They can live anywhere and eat anything. Two major threats that leopards face today are illegal wildlife trade and retaliatory killings,” said Sathyakumar.

In May this year, an expert panel of the union environment ministry had also given a go-ahead for establishing leopard parks in Gujarat including safaris and rescue centres.

Poaching and human-wildlife conflict are major threats

The central government may not have any official data on total deaths of leopards in the country but data recorded by non-governmental organisations like the Wildlife Protection Society of India show that the cases of poaching of leopards and their mortality is much higher.

For instance, according to WPSI data, in 2018, a total of 473 leopard deaths were recorded including 163 cases of poaching and seizures. In 2017, the total number of leopard deaths in India was 431 of which 159 were cases of poaching and seizures.

A recent news report revealed that deaths of the leopards in India in 2018 is highest in the last four years. As per WPSI’s data, a total of 4,539 cases of poaching of leopard have been recorded in India during the 1994-2017 period.

WPSI highlights that these figures represent “only a fraction of the actual poaching and trade in leopard parts in India”.

As per WPSI, the “illicit international demand for big cat skins along with the trade in bones and other parts for use in traditional oriental medicine, continues to be the main reason for the unrelenting poaching pressure on these endangered cats” as “there is virtually no market for either skins or bones of leopards within India”.

“The cases of poaching of leopard is increasing … But they have been in the same range more or less in the last five years. However, these cases are not decreasing. The main issues affecting their population is poaching, encroachment of forest areas and conflict with humans. In many cases, the poachers target leopards when they are not able to find tigers,” said Sunish Kumar, a project officer at WPSI.


Banner Image: Leopard in Nagarhole National Park, Karnataka. Photo by Srikaanth Sekar/Flickr.

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