Tiger goods are much more valuable than leopard merchandise.
But as India's tiger population has dwindled to just 1,411 individuals—most of them in protected reserves—it is getting more cost-effective for traders to get into the leopard business, experts say.
"There is increased value for leopard shins, claws, bones, and penises because it is getting much harder to catch tigers," said Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of Wildlife SOS, a nonprofit animal rescue group in New Delhi that works with the Indian government to nab poachers.
It's also easier to catch leopards because they are more plentiful than tigers.
Although there is still no official estimate on leopard populations in India, wildlife advocates guess the population could be anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000. A detailed leopard census will be carried out over the next three years, experts say.
Unlike tigers, which prefer to live deep in the jungle, nocturnal and solitary leopards can adapt easily to a variety of landscapes.
That includes, increasingly, the fringes of human settlements.
(Related: "Leopards Subdued by "Mooing" Cell Phones" [June 5, 2007].)
It's this adaptability that has also made leopards vulnerable to run-ins with humans, said Rajesh Gopal, member secretary of the government's National Tiger Conservation Authority, which has been allotted more than U.S. $1 billion over the next five years to protect both big cat species in India.
While poachers are responsible for supplying at least half of all leopard skins and parts to China, leopards killed by farmers and landowners provide another source.
As leopard habitat shrinks, more of the predators are attacking livestock for food.
Although the government compensates farmers who lose livestock to wildlife, payments usually take so long to arrive that villagers take matters into their own hands.
For instance, reports of leopards being poisoned to death are more and more common. In November, a five-year-old leopard was found dead after a suspected poisoning near the town of Gūdalūr, in southern India.
The wildlife society estimates that at least 38 leopards have died in similar situations in India this year, a marked increase from 2000, when about 14 leopards died from human conflicts.
"When leopards become a nuisance, many villagers resort to poisoning them and then selling the bodies off to traders for a pittance," said Gopal of the conservation authority.
"These [skins and body parts] then end up in big trading hub centers like Nāgpur [a central Indian city] or New Delhi before crossing the border and going away. All this is no secret."
Ensuring the faster delivery of compensation payments to farmers and creating alternative livelihoods for poacher groups would both slow the big cat trade, Gopal said.
But authorities must also agree on changing the way land is used, for example by creating managed buffer zones in which humans and animals could peacefully co-exist.
"There are still healthy populations of leopards," Gopal said. "So even if we wake up right now, we can still save all these precious animals from getting extinct."
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