Leopards worse off than tigers

The following article by Prerna Bindra is another reminder that the leopard is already following the tiger. Leopards are being decimated, more so as their habitat and prey base in the hills of a number of states continues to be sub-optimal. As their habitat and prey bases shrink, leopards are forced into depending on human settlements' livestock for prey, and this often leads to man eating as well. While in some pockets, tremendous efforts have successfully been made to save leopards by translocating them, in others leopards end up isolated and trapped, incarcerated in cages, or killed by poachers.

- Nirmal Ghosh

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Prerna Singh Bindra / New Delhi

Leopards are disappearing faster than tigers in India. In the past few years, nearly an eighth of India's leopards have fallen prey to poachers. Wild life conservators say up to 500 leopards are killed for their skins every year.

The enormity of the problem is evident from a note sent by the Regional Deputy Director (Northern Region) responsible for enforcing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, which says that more than 1,000 leopard skins have been seized in the recent past. There are just over 8,000 leopards living in the wild in India.

The real number of leopards killed by poachers could be much higher than what has been mentioned in the Deputy Director's note which concedes, "It is an admitted fact all the skins procured by traders are not seized. Only a fraction of the same is detected given the present level of enforcement in all States."

This note was submitted to the Wildlife Department of the Ministry when it had asked Chief Wildlife Wardens of all the States and the Deputy Directors (Wildlife) of all regions to submit details of tiger and leopard skin seizures.

The details provided by them are shocking: For each tiger skin seized, there were at least 10 leopard skins. "This ratio," says a ministry official, "has been increasing over the years... the number of leopards killed by poachers is rising."

The Deputy Director's note says, "Such a heavy off take of animals from the existing leopard population is a matter of serious concern and merits immediate review.

Senior officials stress that leopards face a bigger threat than tigers in India's forests and sanctuaries. The Ministry of Environment and Forests admits that there is a serious crisis but is yet to work out how best to tackle the problem.

The details of the seizure of leopard skins and body parts read like a horror story. Starting from Khaga in Uttar Pradesh, where 18,080 leopard claws were seized in January 2000, to Delhi where 90 leopard skins were seized in April 2005, it is a saga of unrestrained slaughter.

Preliminary investigations have revealed that organised gangs, working in tandem with forest dwellers and those living on the forest fringes, have been poaching leopards. Leopard skins are exported to Tibet via Nepal. Delhi and Haryana have emerged as important trading points in this contraband.

The local contacts of the poachers get a pittance for providing skins and body parts. Poaching of tigers in Sariska is a similar tragic story. Widespread poaching has made the leopards' existence in northern States precarious.

The survival of this majestic beast is severely threatened in Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh, MP and Rajasthan. Wildlife experts say if the present rate of poaching continues leopards could become an extinct species in India in a decade. The plight of leopards in India is worse than that of tigers: Unlike Project Tiger, there is no dedicated conservation programme for leopards and preventing poaching is difficult because they usually inhabit forest fringes where patrolling is minimal.

Leopard skins command an exorbitant price in the international market. Coats made of leopard skin -- usually sourced from India -- are sold openly in Tibet and are in great demand in the Western fashion circuits as they have a "good drape".

Rampant trade in Leopard skins: Orissa

(Message from Biswajit Mohanty)

18th July,2005
There is rampant trade in leopard skins in Orissa. So far , there is no evidence of the bones since all the seizures made so far have revealed skins only.

In 1996, with the seizure of 21 leopard skins from a trader near the state. After this seizure, another seizure of 3 skins was made in 1997 from two well educated traders ( one of them was the son of a retired Chief Engineer while the other was the son of a senior state government official ). They were going to deliver the skins to a buyer in a hotel at Bhubaneswar.

We had collected information about stocks of leopard skins available throughout the state in almost all the forested districts. Last month there was seizure from G.Udaygiri town in Kandhmal district with the help of information passed on by WPSI. Two leopard skins (about 2 months old) were seized from a gang which included a doctor who worked in the local government hospital ! The forest department did the seizure after a considerable two month operation . This was possible entirely due to the personal initiative and sincerity of the Conservator and the local DFO.

Sadly, there is no state level wildlife cell which can track down poachers, traders and undertake sting operations. Our efforts to persuade the state government to set up a crime cell which would collect intelligence and undertake sting operations have not met with success so far.

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