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Leopards: The Unwitting Victims of Tiger Conservation

India's tiger-centric conservation approach is affecting the habitat of other carnivores, especially the leopard.

India's tiger-centric conservation is affecting other animals' habitat, such as leopard
India's tiger-centric conservation is affecting other animals' habitat, such as leopard

The conservation story of the national animal of India has been a great success. In 2010, 13 nations met at St. Petersburg in Russia and set a target to double the number of tigers by 2022—after receiving a fair number of warnings from wildlife conservationists and The World Bank. While many countries are struggling to save tigers even in protected zones, India has achieved its target. Currently, India has 2,967 tigers, as against 1,411 in 2006.

This didn’t happen overnight. The Indian government launched a comprehensive initiative to conserve tigers, Project Tiger, in April 1973. Later, a statutory body, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), was established in 2005 to manage tiger reserves under Project Tiger. Till date, 53 tiger reserves have been established under this project. 

Also Read | Tiger-Human Conflict In India Facing Impact Of 100 Years Of Deforestation Now: Wildlife Photographer Senthil Kumaran

Thus, tigers became an umbrella species. A species selected for conservation on the premise that protection of these umbrella species would help conserve other animals in a protected forest. But is it happening? 

Overshadowed by the tiger

On an average, a male tiger needs 60-150 sq km and females 20-60 sq km of area with enough prey population to sustain. However, only around half a dozen tiger reserves have above 1,000 sq km area of critical tiger habitat.

Tigers are solitary animals and don’t share space easily, even with other tigers. A recent report by Wildlife Institute of India states that the “high population density” of tigers in the Sundarbans is resulting in straying of young tigers. 

Moreover, a report titled, Status of Tigers Co-predators and Prey in India, 2018, indicated that tiger-centric approach is shrinking the habitat and affecting the conservation efforts towards other carnivores such as sloth bears, hyenas, dholes, wolves, and jackals, most importantly leopards.

Tito Joseph, programme officer at Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), a non-profit organisation, says, “Leopards fear tigers, especially when they enter core areas where tigers lurk. They are mostly found in fringe areas, and we have seen cases where leopards are living in the backyard, and people are not even aware of it.” 

Daksh Gangwar, veterinary officer, Pilibhit Tiger Reserve reiterates it.

He says, “If the tiger density increases in an area, where would leopards go?”  

Leopards (Panthera pardus) are currently listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s red list of threatened species, and protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. A latest international report published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography says that due to a range of reasons from shrinking habitat to becoming a victim of roadkill and poaching, leopards are at the 83 per cent risk of extinction. If the current roadkill pattern continues, leopards will go extinct in 33 years.

However, the population of leopards has increased in the last few years due to factors such as high reproduction capacity. On July 29, 2021, the Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Bhupendra Yadav released a report called ‘Status of Leopards, Co-predators and Megaherbivores’, 2018. The findings revealed that India’s official leopard count has increased by 63 per cent from 2014-18. Experts believe that the actual number could be much higher because the census only counted leopards located in the tiger ranges. 

Ravi Chellam, a wildlife biologist and CEO, Metastring Foundation & Coordinator of the Biodiversity Collaborative, explains the gap in the numbers, “Leopards are widely distributed right across the country, and not restricted to tiger habitats. That is why these population estimates, which are part of the all-India tiger population estimation exercise, only give a lower estimate of the leopard population. In other words, this is the minimum number of leopards found in India. A more accurate figure covering all potential leopard habitats in India is likely to be much higher.”

While the environment minister called the increase in number of leopards “a testament to the fact that the conservation of tigers leads to the preservation of the entire ecosystem”, wildlife experts believe that excessive focus on one animal affects the conservation of another.

Leopards and tigers require different approaches for their conservation “when their ecological requirements are so different”, says Dr. Bivash Pandav, director, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). 

He adds, "Tigers require large tracts of undisturbed forests with plenty of large-bodied prey.”

Human-animal conflict

Leopards are solitary creatures like tigers, nocturnal and the most arboreal—can live on trees— among the cat family. They can thrive in fairly disturbed, suboptimal habitats, prey on feral dogs, and even survive on scavenging food waste. As per WWF-India, leopards can be found in all forest types, from “tropical rainforests to temperate deciduous and alpine coniferous forests to dry scrubs and grasslands”. 

Habitat loss and shrinking population of prey force leopards to enter human settlements engendering more man-animal conflicts. 

Pandav says, “Leopards enter human habitations in search of easy food. Improper disposal of food waste, even in some cases, hospital wastes attract these wild carnivores to venture out of their natural habitat. Loss of natural prey also triggers wild carnivores to stray out of the forest.”

Poaching or excessive livestock grazing in the forest can also curtail prey. 

“Grazing suppressed the productivity of the forest thereby depressing wild prey populations. There is no simple answer to human wildlife conflict. Rather, it's a combination of factors, a chain reaction of our activities that adversely affect the forested systems,” adds Pandav. 

Revenge killing is another repercussion of human-animal conflict. People instantly turn hunters and go on a lookout to eliminate a leopard once the news spreads that it attacked another human. 

In April this year, a leopard was shot dead by hunters in Tehri, Uttarakhand, because it killed an eight-year-old boy. In May 2022, a leopard was burnt alive in a village in Pauri Garhwal, as villagers suspected it was the same leopard that killed a 47-year-old woman. Instances of revenge killings are higher in the hills than the plains, as leopards gravitate more towards the former due to paucity of prey. 

“Once a tiger becomes a man eater, it loses all fear of humans and can attack people at any time. In contrast, a leopard, even if it becomes a man eater, it never stops fearing humans. A man-eating leopard will only attack under the cover of darkness,” Pandav says.

On June 7, the decomposed carcass of a leopard was found at Udanti Sitanadi Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh’s Gariaband district. A few months ago, a leopard was found dead near Gariaband town. Forest officials and wildlife experts attribute the above fatalities to poaching, and tell Outlook that leopards are easy targets for poachers as they often stray outside the core area of forest. 

The WPSI has compiled data on poaching cases. It found a consistent rise in the cases of poaching of leopards. Between 2016-21, over 967 leopards were poached. Experts say this is merely a fraction of the actual number. 

According to WPSI, “Illicit international demand for big cat skins, along with the trade in bones and other parts for use in traditional oriental medicine, continues to be the main reason for the unrelenting poaching pressure on these endangered cats.” 

It adds, “There is virtually no market for either skins or bones of leopards within India.”

Joseph has come across cases where after the animal is electrocuted, poachers start removing its body parts. Albeit the trend is also carried out in hilly regions, when a carnivore is killed in retaliation. This practice is continuously on rise and Covid-19 lockdown gave it a huge push. 

"This is one kind of opportunistic exploitation of wildlife. Because their intention is to kill herbivores, not carnivores, but once a big carnivore is killed, poachers understand that these body parts are valuable and will fetch money in the illegal market. So, they remove claws, or in some cases, even skins,” informs Joseph.

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