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 have been poached.

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

“Based on information provided by State Enforcement Agencies, the total number of leopards poached in 2015, 2016 and 2017 is 194, and in 2018 until October it is 66,” Mahesh Sharma, Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change told the Parliament in reply to a query in December.

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

Of the 260 leopards poached between 2015 and 2018, more than half were recorded in the three states of Uttarakhand (60), Himachal Pradesh (49) and Chhattisgarh (25).

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.

Source: Government of India. Chart by Kartik Chandramouli

The leopard is among the protected animals under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Its population is considered “vulnerable” under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List and is noted to have a “decreasing” trend.

The World Wildlife Fund notes that in India 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 estimation, the population of leopards in India is between 12,000 and 14,000.

Sharma said the Indian government has taken a series of steps to protect leopards, including the 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, financial assistance to states for providing better protection to wildlife and improving habitat.

But leopards are not confined to protected areas. “Leopards are found everywhere, including in semi-urban agricultural habitats and even in urban areas,” said S Sathyakumar, a senior scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India. “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.”

Sathyakumar added: “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.”

In May 2018, an expert panel of the Union environment ministry gave the go-ahead for establishing leopard parks in Gujarat, including safaris and rescue centres.

In India, leopards face multiple threats such as poaching, habitat loss and conflict with humans. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Facing many threats

The Indian government may not know the exact number of leopard deaths but data collected by non-governmental organisations indicate the poaching of leopards and their mortality is much higher.

According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, a total of 473 leopard deaths were recorded in 2018, including 163 cases of poaching and seizures. In 2017, the total number of leopard deaths was 431, of which 159 were cases of poaching and seizures. According to a recent news report, 2018 saw the highest number of leopard deaths in India in four years. As per the Wildlife Protection Society, a total of 4,539 cases of poaching of leopards were recorded in India during the 1994-2017 period.

The Society says these figures represent “only a fraction of the actual poaching and trade in leopard parts in India”.

“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,” the Society says, “as there is virtually no market for either skins or bones of leopards within India.”

Sunish Kumar, a project officer at the Wildlife Protection Society of India, added, “The cases of poaching of leopard are 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.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.