Sharp rise in leopard deaths in MP, many being poached for occult practices
56 leopards have been found dead in Madhya Pradesh in the first eight months of this year, already past the average number of big cats killed in the past five years. Of these, carcasses of at least 26 leopards were found without whiskers, teeth and nails, a clear sign of poaching for use in occult practices, a forest department official claimed.
Activists in the state also said that the growing number of leopard deaths was a consequence of lack of conservation efforts for other wildlife with the system focussed solely on tiger conservation. Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of leopards in the country and a report called “Status of Leopards in India” 2018, putting the number at 3,421, close to double of its nearest rival Karnataka, which has 1,783.
Official data shows that in the past five years until 2021, 255 leopards were found dead in Madhya Pradesh, an average of 51 deaths a year. Of these, 53 were killed in accidents, 29 in territorial fights, and 75 due to natural causes. However, in 2021, until August 31, 56 leopards have already been found killed.
Of the 56 leopards found dead this year, 26, or 46% have been found without body parts indicative of poaching or use in “occult practices”. Over the past five years, the corresponding number was 98 from a total 255 deaths, just over 38%.
Senior officials said the Special Task Force of the forest department has arrested more than 45 people in the past eight months, accused of killing leopards by electrocution. The past five years saw 110 arrests for the same offence.
Investigations have revealed that villagers and poachers along the forested tracks have been involved in selling leopard body parts as those of young tigers’, a senior officer of the STF said. The deaths are largely caused by the use of electrified live wire. “These occultists then sell the body parts to people that believe in these customs for anywhere between ten thousand rupees to two lakh rupees, depending on the rituals being conducted,” the officer said.
However, wildlife activists have accused the forest department of focusing solely on the conservation of tigers, and therefore putting other animals at risk.
Ashu Agrawal, an environmental activist, said, “Leopards are being killed in large numbers in MP but the forest department is not paying any attention as their focus is on tiger conservation only. That’s why they are not organising any special programmes for saving leopards.”
Another wildlife activist Ajay Dubey said he had written many times appraising the forest department of the situation. “I even met forest officials and the department said leopard deaths were not a matter of concern because MP has almost 40% of the total population of leopards in India. But they should understand that such a high percentage was being killed for occult practices and in accidents. If this continues, commercial poachers will head towards Madhya Pradesh soon,” said Ajay Dubey, wildlife activist.
A Jabalpur-based activist Manish Sharma has also filed a petition in Jabalpur bench of the state high court on rampant poaching of leopards, after which the court on July 26, asked the petitioner to provide additional details and supporting evidence.
However, forest officials said they were indeed monitoring the deaths of leopards. “Most of the deaths are happening due to electrocution. Many times, villagers lay traps for wild boar and spotted deer but leopards and tigers get trapped in the wire. After the death, they took their claws, whiskers, teeth and nails. We are arresting them and also creating awareness among villagers,” said Alok Kumar, principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife).
The PCCF also dismissed claims that there was laxity in the conservation of leopards, compared to the tigers. “We are not holding any separate campaigns for conservation of leopards because the population is not under threat. They are in large numbers in MP but as a department we are taking care of every animal in the forest and that is why poachers have been arrested by STF for killing leopards,” he added.