The first-ever national leopard census, conducted alongside tiger census in 2014, has put the spotted cat population at 7,910 in and around tiger habitats across India, except West Bengal and the northeastern states where counting could not be undertaken. Based on these numbers census experts believe that the country’s total leopard population is in the range of 12,000 to 14,000.
The leopard count was done along with the tiger census in 2014 with the same methodology adopted for tigers. This involved getting pictures of animals through camera-traps and gathering other evidences of their presence, and then extrapolating the numbers to cover the entire forest landscape.
“There are leopards outside the areas we covered… we estimate India’s total leopard population to be 12,000 to 14,000,” said Yadvendradev V Jhala, lead scientist of the tiger census, who presented the leopard figures at the Wildlife Institute of India’s annual research seminar in Dehradun in early September 2015.
The census numbers give the first accurate picture of the density and distribution of the spotted cats, which were previously guesstimated to be anywhere between 10,000 and 45,000 in the country.
The exercise covered 3, 50,000 sq km of forested habitat across the Shivalik hills and Gangetic plains, central India and the Western Ghats landscape. As many as 17,143 pictures of 1,647 individual leopards were obtained during the exercise that covered most forested landscapes, even the low-grade revenue forests.
The study found the species well distributed across the country, indicating that India’s leopard population is “quite healthy”.
Armed with this proof from tiger habitats, the wildlife institute calculated leopard density. “The numbers are close to 8,900 for the leopard,” said Jhala, about the leopards in the protected areas. “The number [of 12,000 – 14,000] is an extrapolation. It is an educated guess about the numbers in the whole country.”
“Most of the leopard populations are contiguous, ensuring a healthy genetic exchange. So, leopards do not face the problems of isolated populations that plague Indian tigers,” Jhala told TOI.
The wildlife biologist said since there were no previous estimates, there was no way of knowing whether the leopard population was growing or declining. “But leopards are doing far better than tigers because they can survive in scrubs and human-impacted forests as well. That’s why they are not in imminent danger as the tigers,” he said.
However, healthy forests remain crucial to the long-term survival of leopards in India. “There’s an impression that leopards are everywhere. That’s not the case. Leopards need a protected patch of forest to occur in the vicinity. They aren’t found in purely agricultural stretches,” Jhala noted.
With an estimated population of 1,817, Madhya Pradesh has emerged as the top leopard state in the country. It’s followed by Karnataka (1,129), Maharashtra (905), Chhattisgarh (846) and Tamil Nadu (815).
In another major leopard state, Uttarakhand, the study estimated a population of 703. But Jhala said the actual number could be higher by 300-400, because the census did not cover the higher Himalayas.
The census also did not cover Gujarat, parts of Rajasthan and east India, and the entire northeast. “We have included 34 leopards that were captured in camera traps in the northeast. The region could not be properly covered because all forest areas were not sampled in phase I of the census by the respective forests departments,” Jhala explained.
But Vidya Venkatesh, chief administrative officer of Last Wilderness Foundation, believes that the number could actually be higher than the census estimates. “There are lots of leopards outside protected areas,” she explained. “I don’t think it would have been feasible for the census people to put camera traps everywhere.”
According to Venkatesh, leopards probably hover close to every town and village in India: there are 23 leopards within Mumbai city limits itself. Leopards are highly adaptable and live on the edge of forests. They are not afraid of wandering into human settlements looking for a small cat or stray dog to prey on. In Mumbai, leopards and humans have come to an almost harmonious existence with city litter helping the animals feed and breed prolifically. As a result, the census might have understated the number of leopards.
But other factors pull the estimate in the opposite direction. The leopard census has piggy-backed on the tiger census, the methodology of which has been severely criticised. Tiger expert and Asia director of Wildlife Conservation Society Ullas Karanth has argued that the tiger census is misleading, reporting great jumps in population while habitats have dramatically shrunk. “Between 2006-2010, the government claims that although tiger habitat shrank by a whopping 22%, tiger numbers rose 16%, implying an unrealistic 49% leap in tiger densities within India’s beleaguered reserves,” he wrote in a recent article and questioned the latest claim of another 30% jump reported in the latest tiger census that takes India’s tiger population up to 2,226.
The leopard estimates might have the same flaw as the tiger figure. “Leopards are edge experts and at the edge of forests more human settlements are coming, conflicts have increased, habitats have shrunk,” said Shekhar Kumar Niraj, India head of the anti-wildlife trade organization TRAFFIC, listing the factors that go against the leopard. Uttarakhand, in particular, has had a hard time coping with the human-leopard conflict. Chief Minister of Uttrakhand, Harish Rawat, has just issued a directive to state forest officials to build 15-metre wall around villages at the edge of the forest.
Even if the leopard census is correct, it still doesn’t say anything about whether the leopard population is growing or shrinking, whether the animal’s adaptability or human intervention is helping the species.
By sheer numbers, leopards seem to be doing better than tigers but a look at the trends on poaching suggests otherwise. “Poaching of leopard has increased so much in India because leopard parts are being substituted for tiger parts in trade,” said Niraj. Reports of poaching compiled by the Wildlife Protection Society of India, which closely monitors seizures of wildlife parts, shows how bad the problem is.