Sub-species of leopards are distributed across Asia, Middle East and Africa. Leopards across their range are threatened; some more so, like the Amur Leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) which, numbering about 25, is near extinction. Once common in all parts of Africa, apart from the deserts of the Sahara, the leopard has now disappeared from most parts of northern Africa. Sub-species of the leopard once common in the Middle East (Panthera pardus nimr and Panthera pardus jarvis) are now all but extinct, as is the Persian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor). The leopard is listed in the Appendix-1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The Leopard in India
While most know about the tiger crisis, few know that another big cat in India — the leopard — is as critically endangered. The Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) is a hardy animal, making its home in various habitats — from dense evergreen forests in the north-east to the moist, mixed and dry deciduous forests of south, central and north-west India to scrub forests in Rajasthan. The leopard is threatened by illegal trade for its skin and bones, and habitat degradation and fragmentation. There is no authentic census and estimates vary between a dismal 7,000 to an optimistic 10,000. In India, the leopard is protected under Schedule-I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
Trade in Leopard Parts
Unfortunately for the leopard, its supple skin lends itself rather well to the garment industry, as its drape is fine and it cuts easy. Leopard skins are a fashion statement, even if an underground one. If one could pin down this trend to one woman, it would be the late first lady of the US, Jackie Kennedy Onnasis. When she draped a leopard skin coat, the whole world wanted to follow suit. The result was that in the 1960s, more than 2.5 lakh leopards were killed worldwide and converted to coats, shoes, gloves and bags. Predictably, wild populations dipped and the leopard got a reprieve only after the international conservation community imposed a ban on commercial trade in leopard parts.
The ban continues, but so does the illegal trade. A survey by an undercover investigator in Europe indicated that there still exists a substantial market for illegal leopard skin in the garment industry. In 2005, an expose by non-government organisations revealed that leopard (and tiger skins) — most of which are sourced from India — were being used to make festive coats called chubbas, and used as trimmings in Tibet. Leopard coats and trimmings are also used for traditional dances and festivals, and are sold quite openly in Tibet.
More than 500 leopards are killed for their skins every year. The Central Bureau of Investigations’ wildlife crime cell estimated that for every tiger skin, there are at least seven leopard skins in the haul. In 2004, a seizure in Tibet of 31 tiger skins yielded 581 leopard skins. And it’s not just a skin show; there is a market for leopard bones that serve as a substitute for tiger bones (these allegedly have medicinal properties and are much sought after in the Far East). Leopard claws are also fashioned into pendants. There is a thriving market for these; in January 2000, 18,080 leopard claws were seized in Uttar Pradesh. It must be noted here that the leopard skins and derivatives seized are only a fraction of the extent of the trade.
It is not solely poaching that is responsible for the leopard’s demise. Even in these days of ecological enlightenment, shikar (hunting) is a macho, if hush-hush, pastime and word is if you have the right connections then a leopard hunt can be organised.
The leopard today is at the centre of a severe man-animal conflict. Across the country, from the teeming metropolis of Mumbai, desolate Baria in Gujarat, sugarcane fields of Junnar in Maharashtra and the hills of Pauri-Garwal in Uttarakhand, predatory felines are stalking man. Take the case of Pauri-Garwal, where 62 people have been killed by big cats between 1990 and 2001. The human face of the tragedy is immense, but there is another side of the story.
Essentially, the leopard is a shy, solitary animal, a rare sight in the wild. Not being the top predator (unlike the tiger or the lion), the leopard lives in the fringes of the forest, surviving on small game like cheetal, barking deer, wild boar, langur and, in times of stress, even frogs and hare.
A burgeoning human population, expanding agriculture and development projects have destroyed and severely degraded Indian forests. The leopard’s forests have been taken over by human habitation, forcing this reticent predator out into the open. Its prey base has been seriously depleted. Pressed for space and food, the leopard has been forced to adapt. Panthera pardus is a survivor, a cat that adapts to the toughest environment. Homeless and starving, it is straying into villages — once forests — for dogs, chickens, goats and, if all else fails, man. When cat mauls man, quite understandably, people bay for its blood. They kill the beast in revenge; they stone it to death, hack it to pieces or burn it to ashes.
This morbid conflict has also ensured that the leopard has no supporters. Public opinion is unlikely to rally for the leopard and protecting it from poaching is a task almost impossible. There are no designated reserves unlike for the tiger — which in itself is a task India is unequipped to handle — where forces can be deployed to counter the hunter. Solutions, however difficult they are, must be worked out for the cost for both humans and cat is very high.
Where there is good forest cover and good prey base — like Gir (Gujarat) and Bandipur (Karnataka) — cases of human fatalities are near zero, making it a good model for conservation to build upon. Unless a Herculean effort is made to resurrect and protect buffer zones and fringe forests, and end the decimation of its prey base, there is little hope for the leopard.
- The King and I: Travels in Tigerland, by Prerna Singh Bindra
- Wildlife Protection Society of India
- Sandeep Unithan, India Today