A smaller cousin of the fast vanishing tiger — the leopard in Uttarakhand is a target for poachers having links with smugglers catering to eager buyers in China, Nepal and other Asian markets.
Since forest authorities pay far more attention to preventing tiger poaching than protecting leopards, the latter are comparatively easy prey.
Most of the state’s 1,538 leopards they live outside protected areas such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Only 567 are denizens of protected areas. Of the country’s estimated 8,000 leopards, Uttarakhand has 2,105 — the highest number in any state — according to the last Wildlife Census of 2006-07.
With poaching rampant in the remote areas, Pithoragarh Champavat and Chamoli districts are fast emerging as key transit points for poachers and smugglers. “With the entire focus on tiger conservation, leopards in hill districts are becoming easy preytargets and poached on a large scale,” says wildlife expert Anup Sah.
This year, as many as 36 unnatural deaths of leopards and skin seizures have been reported in Uttarakhand - again, the biggest in the country.
“As there is a high demand for tiger parts, poachers and animal traders often try to pass off leopard parts as those of the bigger cats in the thriving Asian markets,” says Sah.
Leopard skins are used in Tibet and mainland China for decorative purposes while claws and penises are in great demand across Southeast Asia.
While a tiger skin costs $3,500-8,000 in the Asian markets a leopard skin is available much cheaper at $1,000-3000.
Leopard body parts are adulterated with those of tigers. Many parts of a tiger are thought to have medicinal values.
Tiger claws are worn as amulets for courage. The tail is used to make soups — and is believed to cure skin diseases. Tiger penis soup is prized as an aphrodisiac.
“Jauljibi and Kailash Mansarovar in Pithoragarh district are the passes widely used for smuggling leopard skins and parts to China,” discloses a man closely associated with poachers on condition of anonymity.
But the state wildlife and environment ministry refuses to accept that leopard poaching is rampant in Uttarakhand.
“Isolated cases do occur once in a while, but the department keeps regular checks to ensure that leopards are protected,” claims Forest Minister Bansidhar Bhagat.
Wildlife experts think otherwise. “There’s an immediate need to introduce a Project Leopard programme in Uttarakhand,” says Ranjit Bhargava, former chairman of the UP chapter of the World Wildlife Fund.