Leopard deaths in India at five-year high, over a third poached

Two Leopards in Chatbir Zoo, Punjab, (pix SShukla) (Representative image)
Two Leopards in Chatbir Zoo, Punjab, (pix SShukla) (Representative image)

India recorded its highest leopard mortality over the past four years in 2018. As many as 460 leopard deaths were recorded across the country this year, according to the Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). A bulk of them – 155 (34%) – were poached while 74 (16%) died in train or road accidents.

At least 431 leopards were killed in 2017, 440 in 2016, 399 in 2015 and 331 in 2014. There were 12,000 to 14,000 leopards across India, according to a 2016 census.

The highest leopard mortality in 2018 was recorded in Uttarakhand with 93 deaths, followed by Maharashtra (90), Rajasthan (46), Madhya Pradesh (37), Uttar Pradesh (27), Karnataka (24) and Himachal Pradesh (23).

“Cases of poaching, road accidents, and human-animal conflict stand testimony to the habitat destruction of these big cats… [It is] a direct result of increased urbanisation edging closer to protected forest spaces…,” said WPSI programme coordinator Tito Joseph.

He said contrary to the popular belief because of the fact that leopards do well even in human-dominated landscapes, they are most vulnerable among large cats. “Their highly adaptable nature brings them close to humans, which in turn puts their lives in jeopardy.”

Wildlife Conservation Trust president Anish Andheria said big cats stand to lose in conflicts with humans. “From 2018 on, these figures are only going to increase and every year records will break till the population is decimated. This is because of anthropogenic reasons like fragmentation, forest degradation, and the development of highways, railway projects.”

According to the environment, forest and climate change ministry’s data tabled in Lok Sabha (Lower House in the Indian Parliament) on 14 December 2018, 260 leopards were poached between 2015 and 2018 (up to October).

Minister of state for environment, forest and climate change Mahesh Sharma told Lok Sabha that the states and union territories have been requested to strengthen field formations and intensify patrolling in and around protected areas to address leopard poaching and general mortalities.

Officials said Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) was addressing issues related to poaching while the ministry’s focus was to immediately reduce rail, road accidents, and human-leopard conflict.

“It has been decided that no new road or railway line proposal will be designed without implementing mitigation measures such as underpasses, overpasses etc. This is now a mandatory requirement for all agencies in India,’’ said the ministry’s additional director general, M S Negi. “Directions have been issued for existing roads that also need to be converted allowing safe passage for animals.”

Negi said they will direct these agencies to allocate funds focusing on wildlife conservation for each proposed project. “To avoid conflict, state governments will prepare respective action plans collating guidelines to be followed around protected areas based on scientific inputs from Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.”

WCCB additional director Tilottama Varma said leopard mortalities have risen over the years and the present scenario is worrisome with body parts seizures and conflict. “However, the exact rise needs to be analysed based on long-term research. On-ground training and sensitisation efforts for enforcement agencies right from our borders to individual states and union territories are regularly taking place,’’ she said. “This is still insufficient as we need to excel in specialised investigation and develop a robust intelligence network.”

WCCB issued an advisory to state forest departments in October exclusively regarding leopard deaths and asked them to constitute special task forces similar to the ones for the tiger conservation. Varma said illegal wildlife trade was taking place within the country. “We found that major seizures of nails and claws were being projected as tiger body parts within India,” she said. “As far as conflict is concerned, every state will have to update their respective responses according to changing habitats and landscapes.” (Hindustan Times)

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