With the dwindling tiger population, poachers are increasingly on the prowl for the country’s other big cat. And if figures are anything to go by, the leopard will soon beat the tiger in the extinction race.
More than 70 leopards were killed across the country in the first three months of this year. And as many as 290 leopards were killed last year, nearly twice as many as the 157 in 2008 according to records available with the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
But wildlifers said the figure could be higher. Some say that up to 500 leopards are killed yearly in India, which has an estimated population of around 8,000 leopards.
“Poachers have shifted focus to leopards because they are near-perfect substitutes for tigers’s body parts,” said wildlife activist Jaswant Singh Kalair.
In UP, for example, poaching has not been restricted to a single region. Dudhwa National Park and its extended territories are the most affected.
Wildlife activists have demanded a dedicated conservation programme — on the lines of Project Tiger — for leopards. But so far, forest authorities have not taken any initiative.
“Like Project Tiger, a dedicated conservation programme for leopards is a must. Poaching of leopards needs to be checked to ensure they don’t face extinction,” said another activist.
A leopard skin sells for Rs 25,000 in the local black market. In big cities, the price goes up to Rs 50,000 and in the international market, it can fetch Rs 100,000.
Nearly 30 leopards have died in Maharashtra this year, most of them by drinking water poisoned by villagers to “punish” the cats for wandering into human habitations. The human-animal conflict has dented efforts of authorities working for protection of the species in the state.
Fifteen deaths were reported in Vidarbha, mostly from the forests of Chandrapur and Gadchiroli. Four leopards were killed in Buldhana district in the last two weeks.
With its habitat degraded, the leopard wanders into human settlements and attacks cattle, dogs, goats and sometimes even humans. This results in outraged villagers bludgeoning the animal to death.
Wildlife activists insist on the need to educate villagers. “We are conducting awareness programmes in the forest villages to minimise the conflict,” said A.K. Joshi, state wildlife warden and principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife).