60% rise in leopard numbers in 4 years; Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra top states
The union environment ministry has said there has been over 60% increase in population of leopards in India since 2014. There were at least 12,852 leopards in the country in 2018 compared to 7,910 leopards estimated in 2014 according to the ministry’s ‘Status of Leopards in India 2018’ report released on Monday.
Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of leopards—3,421 followed by Karnataka—1783 and Maharashtra—1690. Leopard population had increased in all states of central India when compared to previous estimates of 2014.
When it comes to different landscapes of India, central India and Eastern Ghats were found to have 8071 leopards stretching across Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Maharashtra and Northern Telangana. The Shivalik Hills and Gangetic Plains landscape extending from Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh to parts of Bihar 1253 leopards were recorded. In the Western Ghats which includes protected areas in Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu 3387 leopards were recorded while only 141 were estimated for northeastern hills and Brahmaputra plains.
The estimation exercise hasn’t considered other leopard occupied areas such as non-forested habitats (coffee and tea plantations), higher elevations in the Himalayas, arid landscapes and majority of the northeastern landscape. “The population estimation should be considered as the minimum number of leopards in each of the landscapes,” the report cautions.
Genetic analysis of leopards during the study has indicated that leopard populations across the country are not strictly genetically structured as opposed to tiger populations which show structuring. Parts of northeast for example have genetically distinct tiger populations. But the leopard population in India is largely continuous, the estimation of their population by the National Tiger Conservation Authority(NTCA) has revealed.
The findings of NTCA however contradict a study published in the journal PeerJ in February. The study by Wildlife Institute of India and Bengaluru based Centre for Wildlife Studies which used faecal samples to study genetic markers found four distinct sub-populations of leopards in India with high genetic variation—leopards of the Western Ghats, Deccan Plateau-Semi Arid region, Shivalik and the Terai region in North India. The assessment of genetic data had also revealed a possibly human-induced 75-90% population decline among leopards in India in the past 120-200 years.
NTCA in its leopard population estimation has acknowledged that leopard populations are increasingly becoming fragmented due to low wild prey densities. “This has resulted in leopards venturing out into human dominated landscapes and ending up in conflicts. Intense conflicts are mostly reported from hills of Shivalik-Terai landscape and parts of Central India. The forests of Central Indian landscape harbours the largest population of leopards in its fragmented forest patches. While genetic data and population data suggest that leopard populations across is continuous, there is an increasing need for corridor connectivity, and improvement of habitat, to reduce interface with humans and thereby reducing the chance of conflict,” the report has concluded.
“Based on an ever-increasing number of reported leopard deaths over the past decade due to a combination of factors such as roadkills, poisoning, electrocution and persecution by humans, the leopard population should at best remain stable if not decrease since 2014. Such a drastic increase in the population of a large carnivore (apex predator) within such a narrow time period, and that too in a constantly deteriorating habitat, is ecologically impossible. Since the report does not mention anything about the difference in sampled area between 2014 and 2018, one can safely attribute the increase to a gross underestimation in 2014 coupled with an increase in the total area sampled in 2018,” said Anish Andheria, president, Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT).
“The current estimate is based on sampling that was carried out in tiger-bearing areas. While leopards coexist well with tigers, they have a much wider distribution than tigers. This means that a significant portion of leopard habitat such as the entire state of Gujarat and innumerable leopard-bearing habitats such as the Sanjay Gandhi Nation Park, Jhalana are not sampled in this exercise. This means that in the future, if these are included in the estimation process, the population will go up further. To summarise, while the 2018 figure seems far more realistic compared to that of 2014, it is far from representing the real leopard situation on the ground. Having said this, India is the first country that has even attempted to estimate its leopard population. For more accurate results the government will have to carry out an exercise that is designed specifically for leopards, and one that covers their entire range,” he added.
“Leopard numbers can increase substantially but that doesn’t show whether leopard occupancy has increased. If leopard area also increases then that is a sign that they are safe. Leopard area may be out in the full report which will be published later. Leopard numbers fluctuate a lot due to presence of tigers. In protected areas where tiger numbers are low, leopard numbers increase. They can also increase due to better habitat management. In Tadoba we saw leopard numbers jump from 80 to 120 in 3 to 4 years,” said Bilal Habib, Head, Animal Ecology and Conservation Biology.