Project Tiger is a roaring success today. But you cannot say the same about leopards. These magnificent cats are dwindling in numbers fast and very little has been done to work against it. The numbers below paint a shocking picture, while outlining why and how leopards can be saved
When the 1972 tiger census shocked readers with dwindling numbers of tigers in the wild (1,827), the then Indian government sprang into action and launched ‘Project Tiger’ to save the striped cat. Project Tiger today is a roaring success story. According to statistics from Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), the number of tigers poached over the past 26 years has decreased considerably: while 395 tigers were poached in the span of five years between 1994 and 1998, the number was 171 between 2014 and 2018. Moreover, the latest tiger census of 2016 by the World Wildlife Fund and Global Tiger forum recorded 3,890 tigers in the wild.
While the situation is all hunky dory for the striped cat, its equally magnificent cousin, the leopard, a schedule I species under the Wildlife Protection Act, has a bitter tale to tell. According to the same data set, in the last 26 years, 4,730 leopards have been poached as against 1,186 tigers. While this represents only a fraction of actual poaching of big cats in India, apart from kills during human encounters, road accidents and natural causes, the vast difference between the number of leopards and tigers poached is nothing short of a riddle.
When compared against the tiger poaching lustrum data, leopard-poaching cases paint a grim picture. While 605 leopards were poached between 1994 and 1998, as many as 727 spotted cats got hunted illegally between 2014 and 2018. As of February 16, 2019, as many as 28 leopards have been poached already, against four tigers.
Experts say the leopard’s wide range of food habit, its agile body, its uncanny ability to adapt to the human environment and smaller body size make it hazardous for the animal, especially in the absence of a vigilance program. “The leopard is as endangered as the tiger, but these are two different animals separated by their habits and body size. A leopard is almost three times smaller than a tiger. This enables it to live in places that tigers cannot. While its food requirement is lower due to the smaller body size, this cat also has a wider range of diet to choose from,” says Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh, a wildlife photographer and big cat admirer from the Ranthambore National Park.
However, the smaller body size and flexible food habits have put these animals in grave danger. Since their food habits bring them closer to human settlements, they become free target to poachers. Experts believe that leopards are softer, easier and unintended targets in many cases due to their scavenging nature. So while snares are put up to catch a fox or a rabbit, a leopard gets trapped unintentionally.
The demand for counterfeit tiger claws, tiger bones, meat and other tiger body parts is yet another contributor in driving this big cat towards dwindling numbers. Once leopards stray out of the reserve or park boundary, they become easy and preferred target to poachers, who counterfeit leopards’ parts as tigers’.
“In the international market, tiger products and body parts are priced very high. However, poaching tigers is a tricky affair. Apart from all the attention and security they have under Project Tiger, they are also difficult to spot. To poach a tiger, you need to first spot a tiger, which is not easy. On the other hand, leopards live in sugarcane fields in places like Nasik. Moreover, a leopard’s organ/bone is morphologically the same as the tiger’s and can be easily sold as a small tiger’s or a tiger cub’s. Additionally, a leopard’s pelt is more appealing than a tiger’s skin. All these reasons make leopards poachers’ dream animal,” says Shardul Bajikar, a naturalist associated with Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), located in Mumbai.
Forest department’s apathy
According to experts, the big cat has been neglected for far too long, thanks to the forest department’s careless and lax attitude. Naturalists and big cat specialists are miffed with the negligence and fear the worst. “The law does not discriminate between a tiger and a leopard, or even other animals for that matter. Both the cats are schedule I animals, but the forest department’s negligence in providing protection to leopards is evident at many parks and reserves,” says Shardul.
As per information from the Ministry of state for Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), about 5% of India’s mainland is under forest reserves and parks, the 51 tiger reserves, which amount to 2% of mainland, is heavily protected, whereas, the rest of the 3%, which are dominated by leopards, have no protection mechanism in place.
Naturalists fear losing leopards much before tigers and other fauna, if the leopard kill rate continues to be this high. “We have ignored the issue for far too long and it is time to take action. Firstly, there should be a protection mechanism in place at the policy level in areas where leopards are found. Secondly, the forest department should carry out a rigorous sensitisation regime for officials as well as for towns, cities and villages in and around forests or national parks. Today, SGNP houses the highest carnivore density anywhere in the world. We have 41 leopards in 100 sqkm of area. But there has hardly been any patrolling regime or protection effort on the part of the forest department,” says Shardul.
Citing the example of the Melghat Tiger Reserve, naturalists draw a striking difference between the protection regime followed at a tiger reserve and in leopard areas. According to sources in the forest department, officials patrol around six-lakh km of area annually on foot at the Melghat tiger reserve. “This is the kind of protection provided in a tiger reserve. On the other hand, SGNP with the highest density of leopards has no protection mechanism in place. The department has started some activity in the last couple of months after a leopard was found in a snare in Milk Colony around SGNP,” said Shardul.
Under-reportage of leopard kills by government agencies is yet another issue. During the parliament session of December 2018, Mahesh Sharma, minister of state for Environment Forest and Climate stated that the total number of leopards poached during 2015, 2016 and 2017 was 194. “Based on the information provided by State Enforcement Agencies, the total number of leopards poached during 2015, 2016 and 2017 is 194 and in the current year, till October 2018, it is 66,” said Sharma. However, as per data collected by WPSI, the total number of leopard poaching cases in these three years was 440.
According to big cat experts, a leopard or any other big cat is never looking to attack humans. The Kanurmarg factory episode in Maharashtra in 2016 can be taken as a classic example to justify this theory. The leopard was trapped inside the factory with a mob standing outside. When the cat finally broke the door loose, it just skirted the people and ran away, instead of attacking them.
“No big cats want to attack people; rather, they do their best to avoid us. High numbers of sightings or human-leopard conflicts are not because they want to kills us, but because of the decline in their home areas. In a tiger reserve, tigers occupy the inside of the reserve, pushing leopards to the edges, leaving them with no option but to stray out. In case of the Ranthambore National Park, within one kilometer of the outer boundary of the park, there are as many as 116 villages and eight towns. So leopards have no choice but to stray and enter human settlements,” says Aditya.
According to Aditya, leopards tend to stay in human dominated areas due to the wide range of food choices. “The fact that we have around 150 leopards in Mumbai and in similar numbers in cities like Bengaluru and Delhi suggests that this big cat does tend to stray into villages and towns more often and this is true world over. They are surviving in areas where forests have been wiped out. This is essentially because they can get food, water and cover outside the forest area as well,” says Aditya.
Mumbaikars blaze a trail
A few citizens from Mumbai along with officials from the forest department have created a perfect recipe to minimise human-leopard conflict. Living with Leopard, a programme started by the group in 2011, is yielding fruit now. After eight years of raising awareness in villages, hamlets and towns around SGNP, the number of human-leopard conflicts in the area has reduced to zero.
“We started the programme after witnessing several episodes of conflict between humans and leopards, the most intense being in the 2003-04 period. These conflicts were fuelled by the practice of trapping and relocating leopards in response to pressure from different sections of human society on the forest department, further increasing the risk of such conflicts,” says Nikit Surve, a wildlife researcher and a volunteer with ‘Living with Leopard’ programme.
Under the programme, a team of proactive citizen and forest department officials went around talking to people living in leopard areas, explaining the dos and don’ts to them. Awareness programmes were organized for the police department and media personnel. And slowly, calls for a trap cage changed to calls for awareness sessions. Today, the area is completely free of man-leopard conflicts.
According to Nikit, such conflicts arise mostly due to conflicts between organisations and stakeholders rather than the animal. “While working on this project, I realised that it is more a man-man conflict than man-animal conflict. When we reach out to solve human-leopard conflict issues, we realise that it is different departments and stakeholders who need to resolve differences, and the animal is just an easy target. In a village under the project, leopard sighting was very common. Upon research, we discovered that the sightings were occurring because the electricity was available only at night and thus farmers were out during dark hours irrigating their fields, ending up sighting leopards. But when both the forest department and irrigation department sat together, the conflict was resolved,” recalls Nikit.
According to Shardul, the number of calls since the last five years – when people contacted the forest department asking that leopards be taken away has reduced to zero. “After the awareness programme, people are more open to the idea of living with leopards. Societies have put up high perimeter fences, cameras and realised the importance of managing their garbage,” says Shardul.
Living with Leopards:
Source: Living with Leopards project.
Image Credit: Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh