for National Geographic News
A recent flurry of leopard-skin seizures by Indian wildlife authorities suggests that as tigers decline, poachers are increasingly on the prowl for the country's other big cat.
At least 141 leopards have fallen to poaching so far in 2008, compared to 124 leopards killed in 2007. In contrast, 24 tigers were killed so far this year, according to the New Delhi-based nonprofit Wildlife Protection Society of India.
About 27 of those skins have been taken in just the past few months.
Leopard poaching numbers have fluctuated in the 14 years the wildlife society has worked on the issue, in part due to enforcement activity. Many leopard deaths go undetected, said Tito Joseph, program manager at the society.
"The situation is serious," Joseph said.
But the increased number of seizures may be due to improved wildlife enforcement and agency coordination, rather than an actual rise in leopard killings, said Ramesh Pandey, deputy director of the government's new Wildlife Crime Control Bureau.
Authorities seize between 150 to 200 leopard skins and bodies from around the country every year—implying a steady market for leopard skins and parts.
Even so "there is no doubt that the leopard is under threat," Pandey said.
Cheaper than Tigers
Indian leopard skin and parts largely wind up in China, traveling via Nepal, experts say.
The skin serves various decorative purposes, while leopard bones and other parts are most likely masqueraded as tiger products and sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine, said Joseph of the wildlife society.
(Related: "Record Cache of Snow Leopard Parts Seized in China" [September 10, 2007].)
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