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As Tigers Disappear, Poachers Turn to Leopards in India

Paroma Basu in New Delhi, India
for National Geographic News
December 3, 2008
 
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].)

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.

Adaptable Predators

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.

Farmer Conflicts

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."

Solutions

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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