Growing man-animal conflict resulting in increasing leopard deaths is worrying wildlife conservationists.
In 2006, 26 leopards were killed outside forests. The figure was only 13 in 2005, said Senior Project Officer T Joseph of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. The deaths are reported from all over the country, including forest-rich states like Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam and Uttaranchal.
Joseph said the carnivore was being forced to move out in search of small animals due to its shrinking prey base within the forest. He said the leopard death count was 154 in 2004, 228 in 2005, and 226 in 2006. While human-animal conflict killed 22 cats in 2004, the figure was lesser, 13, in 2005. Poachers claimed 113 animals in 2004, 196 in 2005 and 160 leopards in 2006, he said. Many of the animals also die in road accidents, he added.
Dr VK Ashraf, Director, Wildlife Rescue of the Wildlife Trust of India said the leopard is vulnerable but not yet an endangered species. But its depleting population due to the human-animal conflict was cause for concern, he added.
The small-bodied leopard is highly adaptable. It can survive on rabbits, hares and dogs; live on the ground and tree tops, in sugar cane fields, tea gardens. It is also very secretive and nocturnal and can evade notice for years despite breeding in human habitat, he said. More than 50 per cent leopards stay out of protected areas, he added.
Ashraf pointed out that every tea garden in Assam has a leopard trap. They bait them with goat or chicken and hand over the captured leopards to the forest department. But a good many are also killed if they maul villagers, he said.
Ashraf said there was need for leopard rescue facility centres, which could have trained persons including veterinarians to take care of trapped leopards.
Dr Diwakar Sharma, Associate Director, Worldwide Fund for Nature India said besides the demands of development, large chunks of leopard habitats are also encroached by villagers on the edge of forests, which are eventually legalised. "A cess or tax on the urban population and the funds being pooled for the development of villages in the vicinity of forests can act as an incentive for villagers to conserve the forests,” he said.