The Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) is a subspecies widely distributed on the Indian subcontinent. It is one of the five big cats found in India, apart from Asiatic lion, Bengal tiger, snow leopard and clouded leopard.
In 2008, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) classified leopards as Near Threatened, stating that they may soon qualify for the Vulnerable status due to loss of habitat and fragmentation, heavy poaching for the illegal trade of skins and body parts in Asia, and persecution due to conflict situations. They are becoming increasingly rare outside protected areas. The trend of the population is decreasing.
Friedrich Albrecht Anton Meyer wrote in 1794, the first description of Felis fusca, in which he gave account of a panther-like cat from Bengal (India) of about 85.5 cm (33.7 in), with strong legs and a long well-formed tail, head as big as a panther’s, broad muzzle, short ears and small, yellowish grey eyes, light grey ocular bulbs; black at first sight, but on closer examination dark brown with circular darker colored spots, tinged pale red underneath.
Distribution and habitat
On the Indian subcontinent, topographical barriers to the dispersal of the subspecies are the Indus River in the west, and the Himalayas in the north. In the east, the lower course of the Brahmaputra River and the Ganges Delta form natural barriers to the distribution of the Indo-Chinese leopard. This subspecies is distributed all over India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and parts of Pakistan. They are found in the tropical rain forests, dry deciduous forests, temperate forests and northern coniferous forests up to an altitude of 2,500 meters (8,200 ft) above sea level, bordering snow leopard habitat. Mangrove forest of the Sundarbans, abode of Bengal Tiger, is the only tiger reserve in India where leopards have never been seen. It’s the Bangladeshi side of the forest that reported about the only sighting of a leopard in 1931. (To know more about Sunderbans please see ‘Man-eating in Sunderbans’ on page ‘Tiger Attacks and Man-eating’)
In Nepal’s Bardia National Park, home ranges of male leopards comprises of about 48 km2 (19 sq mi), and of females about 17 km2 (6.6 sq mi); female home range decreases to 5 to 7 km2 (1.9 to 2.7 sq mi) when they had young cubs.
Numerous Leopards living in human habitats
A new study has found that a large number of leopards may be residing in human-dominated agricultural landscape in densely populated India, quietly sharing space with people in villages, farmlands and even on the edges of the towns. A study was conducted in a densely populated valley in Akole tehsil of Ahmednagar district in the state of Maharashtra.
The study published in March 2013 in the Public Library of Science Journal says the researchers had set up camera traps in 40 locations in the selected site, covering 179 sq km with a population density of 357 people/sq kilometer, for a month to collect evidence of wildlife in this sugarcane belt. A total of 81 leopard images were captured in which five adult males and six adult females were identified. Of these two females were with cubs and a third gave birth six months later. Other animals caught on the cameras included hyenas (65 photos), jungle cat (20), Rusty spotted cat (10), Indian civet (5), jackal (3) and Indian fox (1).
Seeing the numbers of the wild cats in the area, researchers estimated that the animal density was five (4.8) leopards per 100 sq km. That’s not all. As many striped hyenas (5.03) per 100 sq km were also found in the area. This takes the presence of large predators in the area to 10/hundred square kilometers.
The lead author of the study, which was carried out in collaboration with the Maharashtra forest department, was Vidya Athreya, wildlife biologist working with Wildlife Conservation Society of India (WCSP). She says, “nowhere in the world have such large number of big predators been reported in such densely populated human landscape.” Interesting fact is that the big cat’s density reported from the area was found to be higher than some of the national parks. For example, Rajaji National Park in the state of Uttrakhand (India) is said to have leopard density of just 2.07 per 100 sq km. Overall spotted cat’s density in India’s protected forests is 15 per 100 sq km.
Athreya says, “The leopards were marking their territories on roads and on bunds in sugarcane fields. This was much their land as it was of the people.” During the day these cats spend their time sitting/relaxing in the sugarcane fields, often just a few hundred metres away from human habitation. During night they even went close to houses to kill dogs, cats and goats.
She claims that the Akole is not the isolated example. These cats can be found across the sugarcane belts of western Uttar Pradesh, western Maharashtra and Gujarat as well as the tea-growing areas of Bengal, Assam and south India.
The most interesting part is despite the fact so many predators living in the area no human death reported from the said locality. However, serious leopard attacks were reported from neighbouring forested areas. The wildlife biologist believes this is because the big cats, which instinctively avoid humans, are more or less settled in the area where they have been living for a quite some time. Perhaps they have grown up there. Athreya says, “We found one of our radio-collared leopards visited a particular house every few days without ever disturbing its residents, who sleep in the open”.
She believes most of the attacks by big cats take place because the animals trapped in human habitations are often released in places that are unfamiliar to these cats. A relocated animal gets confused, disoriented and unpredictable. The study emphasizes on the shift in the concept of the conservation that concentrates solely on protected areas.
Leopards never change their home : Vidya
Vidya, who is a Pune-based wildlife biologist and head of the project Waghoba on leopard, claims that the prevalent method of trapping the stray leopards and relocating them to faraway forests is flawed. Four-year-long study has thrown up some interesting points and put a question mark over the Forest Department’s ways of dealing with human-leopard conflict.
Across India wherever cattle are killed by any leopard, villagers contact forest department officials for help and they follow a fixed pattern: tranquilizing the animal, putting it in a cage and releasing in a far off forest area. That’s the end of the problem for them as they believe that the spotted cat doesn’t return to its original pad. But Athreya’s work—in a village in Maharashtra (India)—has revealed that the big cat has strong homing instinct. It always comes back to where it belongs.
These animals try their best to come back to their territory no matter how far they have been relocated. During the study, a radio-collared leopard was found to cover 120km in 25 days. It crossed highways, villages and a big creek to get back to its territory. “They try to occupy their place again, otherwise younger leopards looking for vacant territory occupy it immediately,” says Athreya.
Her finding is that translocation, in fact, has made the human-leopard conflict more intense. In Junnar forest division, Maharashtra, between 1993 and 2001, an average of four attacks on humans occurred each year. But after translocations, the number escalated to 17. Attacks particularly increased in areas where leopards were introduced from other areas. That could possibly be because of increased stress, loss of fear towards humans during capture, disorientation and even an attempt to make a dash towards its original territory.
The study has other revelations too. For instance, many think that leopards attack cattle when they have strayed too close to human settlements. But that’s not the case. Firstly, they haven’t strayed; leopards are highly territorial and will not leave their homes. So if their territories overlap with humans it is because they consider that land theirs as well. Of the scats analyzed in the leopard study, the most common prey was the dog, and not cattle. Through the camera-trap method and radio telemetry, the team found out that leopards and hyenas can easily reside in densely populated human settlements. “It’s normal for them to even live in areas with a density of 200 people per square km. leopards were found sitting quietly in sugarcane fields even as people worked there. Yet, without the conflict we would expect them to cause,” adds the biologist.
Ullas Karanth, a conservationist, also says that translocating leopards under pressure from local people is not the solution. “Leopards will traverse hundreds of kilometers to come back. Long ago, we had radio collared a leopard and saw that it easily came back to its original area in Nagarhole,” says Karanth. Everybody knows a leopard never changes its spots. It’s time we knew it never changes its home as well.
Expansion of agricultural land, encroachment of humans and their livestock into protected areas are main factors contributing to habitat loss and decrease of wild prey. As a result, leopards approach human settlements, where they are tempted to prey on dogs, pigs and goats — domestic livestock, which constitutes an important part of their diet, if they live on the periphery of human habitations. Human–leopard conflict situations ensue, and have increased in recent years. In retaliation for attacks on livestock, leopards are shot, poisoned and trapped in brutal snares.
India’s Forest Department is entitled to set up traps only in cases of a leopard having attacked humans. If only the presence of a crowd of people prevents the leopard from escaping, then the crowd has to be dispersed and the animal is allowed to escape.
Vidya Athreya, wildlife biologist working with Wildlife Conservation Society of India (WCSP) is of the view that human-leopard conflict is man-made and could be dealt by creating awareness and not killing the feline which was bound to increase the conflict. At a media workshop on “Leopards are not hostile” organised in Shimla (Himachal Pradesh, India) in October 2014, she said the main reasons for conflict were crowding of leopards by people, pressure on the Forest Department to cage the leopards, poaching and efforts to restrain the wild cat within the man-driven territorial boundaries. Sensitisation of media and reaching out to people to explain the characteristics of leopard behaviour would go a long way in conservation of leopards without disturbing the human habitats.
Leopards make dogs, goats and sheep as their prey but attack human beings only when provoked. She also raised doubts about the experiences of Jim Corbett, who wrote extensively about the man-eaters of Kumaon and said his observations did not match with scientific findings. Referring to her experience of working on the human-leopard conflict in Mumbai for the past more than 10 years, Vidya said radio collars were implanted on six leopards and tigers to watch their movements and the leopards let off in other forests were found to be more ferocious but there was no mechanism to find out that whether a leopard had turned a man eater or not.
In India, leopard conservation is often clubbed with tigers because they usually share the same habitat. Till 2014 no reliable count of leopards was available, which had also affected its systematic protection. Unofficial estimate put their number between 10,000 and 15,000, but the data (without any census) released by India’s ministry of environment and forests in 2008, says there were more than 11,000 leopards in the country.
Leopard population grew 8000 to 13000 in just four years – 2018 Census
The leopard population in India recorded an encouraging increase of 62% in four years – from 7,910 in 2014 to 12,852 in 2018 – according to the ‘Status of Leopards in India – 2018 Report’ released by Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar on 21 December 2020.
First-ever national leopard census (2014)
The first-ever national leopard census has put the spotted cat population at 7,910 in and around tiger habitats across India, except the northeastern parts. 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. The census number give the first accurate picture of the density and distribution of the spotted cats, which were previously guesstimated.
“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 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 said.
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.
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.
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Leopards are killed because their body parts are being used as replacement in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for tiger parts, which have become increasingly expensive. Otherwise, leopard skins have been traded for a long time.
One leopard values about 10 Lakh (one million) rupees in the international market (2012 figures)
Killing animals for illegal wildlife trade has the greatest potential to do maximum harm in minimal time. Apart from poaching, Indian leopards are threatened also by the loss of habitat and fragmentation of formerly connected populations, various levels of human–leopard conflict in human dominated landscapes, and competition with other predators.
A significant immediate threat to these cats is the illegal trade in body parts and poached skins between India, Nepal and China. The governments of these countries have failed to implement adequate preventive and enforcement response. Besides this, wildlife crime has also remained a low priority in terms of political commitment and investment for years. There are well-organized gangs of trained professional poachers, who move from place to place and set up camp in vulnerable areas. After the killing skins are rough-cured in the field and handed over to dealers, who send them for further treatment to Indian tanning centers. Buyers choose skins from dealers or tanneries and smuggle them through a complex interlinking network to markets outside India, mainly in China. Seized skins in Kathmandu confirm the city’s role as a key staging point for illegal skins smuggled from India bound for Tibet and China.
It is likely that seizures represent a tiny fraction of the total illegal trade, with the majority of smuggled skins reaching their intended end market. Seizures revealed:
- in India: more than 2845 leopards were killed illegally between 1994 and October 2010;
- in Nepal: 243 poached leopards between May 2002 and May 2008;
- in China and Tibet: more than 774 poached leopards between July 1999 and September 2005.
According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) report of May 2010, at least 3,189 leopards were killed in India since 1994. For every tiger skin, there are at least seven leopard skins in the haul.
Frederick Walter Champion was one of the first in India who after World War I advocated for the conservation of leopards. He condemned sport hunting and recognized their key role in the ecosystem. Billy Arjan Singh championed their cause since early 1970s.
Despite people calling for conservation India and Nepal being contracting parties to CITES, national legislation of both countries does not incorporate and address the spirit and concerns of CITES. Trained human resources, basic facilities and effective networks for control of poaching and trade in wildlife are lacking.