The first-ever national leopard census has found that there are somewhere between 12,000 and 14,000 leopards in the country. Though this looks like a large number of the smallest of India's big cats, there isn’t too much too cheer about yet.

To begin with, it isn't clear how accurate the number is. Yadvendradev Jhala, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, which conducted the census, admitted that this number was actually an estimate. The leopard count was done along with the tiger census in 2014. Forest departments in the 18 states with tiger reserves conducted surveys, dividing protected areas into 15-square-kilometer grids to look for leopard scat and other signs of the animal. In about 35 sites where there were indications of leopards, forest teams set up camera traps and ended up with 17,000 photographs of leopards.

Armed with this proof from tiger habitats, the wildlife institute calculated leopard density. “The numbers are close to 8,900 for the leopard,” said Jhala, about the leopards in the protected areas. “The number [of 12,000 – 14,000] is an extrapolation. It is an educated guess about the numbers in the whole country.”

But Vidya Venkatesh, chief administrative officer of Last Wilderness Foundation, believes that the number could actually be higher than the census estimates. “There are lots of leopards outside protected areas," she explained. "I don’t think it would have been feasible for the census people to put camera traps everywhere.”

According to Venkatesh, leopards probably hover close to every town and village in India: there are 23 leopards within Mumbai city limits itself.  Leopards are highly adaptable and live on the edge of forests. They are not afraid of wandering into human settlements looking for a small cat or stray dog to prey on. In Mumbai, leopards and humans have come to an almost harmonious existence with city litter helping the animals feed and breed prolifically. As a result, the census might have understated the number of leopards.

Census misleading?

But other factors pull the estimate in the opposite direction. The leopard census has piggy-backed on the tiger census, the methodology of which has been severely criticised. Tiger expert and Asia director of Wildlife Conservation Society Ullas Karanth has argued that the tiger census is misleading, reporting great jumps in population while habitats have dramatically shrunk. “Between 2006-2010, the government claims that although tiger habitat shrank by a whopping 22%, tiger numbers rose 16%, implying an unrealistic 49% leap in tiger densities within India’s beleaguered reserves,” he wrote in a recent article and questioned the latest claim of another 30% jump reported in the latest tiger census that takes India’s tiger population up to 2,226.

The leopard estimates might have the same flaw as the tiger figure. “Leopards are edge experts and at the edge of forests more human settlements are coming, conflicts have increased, habitats have shrunk,” said Shekhar Kumar Niraj, India head of the anti-wildlife trade organization TRAFFIC, listing the factors that go against the leopard.  Uttarakhand, in particular, has had a hard time coping with the human-leopard conflict. Chief Minister Harish Rawat has just issued a directive to state forest officials to build 15-metre wall around villages at the edge of the forest.

Even if the leopard census is correct, it still doesn’t say anything about whether the leopard population is growing or shrinking, whether the animal’s adaptability or human intervention is helping the species.

By sheer numbers, leopards seem to be doing better than tigers but a look at the trends on poaching suggests otherwise. “Poaching of leopard has increased so much in India because leopard parts are being substituted for tiger parts in trade,” said Niraj. Reports of poaching compiled by the Wildlife Protection Society of India, which closely monitors seizures of wildlife parts, shows how bad the problem is.