Bengaluru: India lost at least 218 leopards over the first four months of 2019, more than 40% of the previous year’s death toll of 500, which itself was the highest ever since the nonprofit Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) began keeping records in 2009.

At least one leopard died every day in India--trapped in wells, beaten or shot to death, run over on rail and road--in 2018, according to WPSI data, a primary source in the absence of reliable government data, which, when available, underestimate leopard mortality.

As the death toll of India’s most adaptable big cat rises to record levels, some experts are worried that leopards may now be more at risk of extinction than tigers.

After poaching, railways and roads were responsible for the most leopard deaths--16% or 35--over the first four months of 2019. As infrastructure projects were allowed in leopard habitats, deaths by train or vehicle rose steadily: 41 in 2014, 51 in 2015, 51 in 2016, 63 in 2017 and 80 in 2018. Another instance, as we explain later, is the rise in leopard deaths as more Indians are connected to the electricity grid.

Source: Wildlife Protection Society of India, 2019
Note: Data for 2019 are as of May 1

Listed as “vulnerable”--just short of endangered--by a Red List maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Panthera pardus (the leopard’s scientific name) is protected by Indian law in and classified as needing the highest protection under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

Leopards are India’s most widespread big cats and a keystone species, their presence indicating the well-being of wild areas, forests and water sources, which sustain not just wildlife but the country’s economy, said experts.

“Leopards are an indicator of the forest’s health,” said Anish Andheria, Phd, president of the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT), an advocacy. “We have high human-leopard conflicts because the forests are degrading, and they (leopards) have to come out for food. In areas where forests are healthy, they prey on monkey and deer, also regulating their population.”

Infrastructure projects are important for a developing country, but mitigation measures are required to protect leopards and the forests they represent, said experts. But those protections are being whittled away, as pressure grows on governments to open more wild areas for human infrastructure and modernity reaches rural areas.

The National Board for WildLife cleared 519 projects in India’s protected areas--where commercial exploitation and construction activities are prohibited and strictly regulated by law--and their ‘eco-sensitive zones’ over the four years of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government between June 2014 and May 2018, as IndiaSpend reported in September 2018. The fast-tracking of such developmental projects threatens India’s last wild areas, the country’s water resources and hastens local and global warming.

Protected Areas provide vital ecosystem services: they are the last repositories of valuable biodiversity, serve as watersheds and help mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon.

Each infrastructure project takes it toll of leopards, other wildlife and their habitat.

“Currently, every day 21 km of roads are being laid across the country, and this is expected to soon reach 45 km, (with) many of these roads in or around our protected areas,” said Andheria.

Another example: India’s drive to bring electricity to its rural areas, where 833 million Indians live. In 2014, 70% of Indian families had electricity, which spread to almost 100% by 2019, according to government data.

Death by electricity

The increase in electrification nationwide was correlated with an increase in leopard deaths by electrocution, which rose as a proportion of all leopard deaths, from 0.9% in 2017 to 1.2% in 2018 and to 2.3% over the first four months of 2019, according to WPSI data, which could be conservative estimates, experts said.

Many wild animals are killed when villagers tap overhead power lines to fence fields to prevent incursions from herbivores. “Not even a tenth of these cases come to light,” said Andheria. “Since leopards are protected animals, people are scared to report such incidents.” Bodies are easily disposed, since leopards are smaller than tigers or lions.

Other animals have been similarly killed.

For instance, power lines strung across the last habitat of the great Indian bustard in Rajasthan’s Desert national park have been an important reason for the death of a powerful bird now extinct across 90% of its original subcontinental range, IndiaSpend reported in January 2018.

As forests recede or are split by power lines, railways or roads, the leopard’s capacity to adapt often takes it closer to human settlements in search of food.

Human-leopard conflicts claimed 18 leopards (8.3% of all leopard deaths) over the first four months of 2019, compared to 27 (8.13%) in 2014, 33 (8.27%) in 2015, 31 (7.04%) in 2016, 28 (6.49%) in 2017 and 35 (7%) in 2018.

India has world’s highest livestock density, so leopards forced out of forests find relatively easy access to prey, said Vidya Athreya, an ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a nonprofit.

Preventing conflict

The key to saving the leopard lies in preventing human-leopard conflict, said Athreya. That means better management of: garbage, compensation for leopard attacks and providing mitigation measures for wildlife when planning infrastructure projects.

“People are angered when their livestock is attacked, and so their losses need to be well-compensated,” said Athreya. Indian laws allow such compensation, but “it requires to be more fair, just and transparent”, she added.

Since leopards are smaller than lions and tigers, they adapt, as we said, to living near humans. Leopards routinely turn up in villages, towns and cities as large as Mumbai, which contains within it a national park with 47 leopards. Leopards have wandered into houses and schools, gated colonies and government offices and been found under buses.

Another way of preventing conflict is to manage garbage near leopard habitat, said Andheria of the WCT. Garbage attracts dogs, pigs and livestock, providing more food for leopards and increasing their population at a greater rate than in undisturbed natural ecosystems.

Accounting for wildlife when planning infrastructure projects is something governments “rarely consider” said Andheria, who pointed to “some change” in Maharashtra

He cited the case of at least seven infrastructure projects proposed around the Tadoba Tiger Reserve in Chandrapur district in Maharashtra, where the WCT worked with the state forest department to suggest mitigation measures, such as constructing underpasses in the areas where the animal crossover is high, providing chain line fences on either side of these underpasses to guide the animals to them and providing sound barriers on the bridges to protect the animals from vehicles’ sound and light.

A state committee has asked all road projects between Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary outside the city to be considered together and elevated to allow unhindered movement of wildlife, he said. Another example he cited was the construction of around 10 underpasses on a national highway around two years back cutting through the Pench tiger reserve.

Power lines close to or over wildlife areas should be buried, he said.

Yet, even if mitigation measures were to be taken to the fullest extent nationwide, there is no obvious solution to the biggest killer of leopards.

Poaching and the lack of data

Poachers are the leading cause of leopard deaths, claiming 26% (57 leopards) of the cats between January and April 2019. In 2018, poachers killed 169 leopards, the highest since 188 in 2011, according to WPSI data.

An international trade in leopard parts drives the killing, said Tito Joseph, Programme Manager of the WPSI. “There is a huge demand in China and other southeast Asian countries for its skin, claws and bones,” said Joseph. “Locally, there is a small demand for its paws and canines, which are also used to perform black magic.”

The decimation of leopards is not reflected in official data. In December 2018, Mahesh Sharma, then minister of state for environment, forests and climate change, citing data from state enforcement agencies, told Parliament that 260 leopards were poached between 2015 and October 2018.

These data list 64 leopards poached in 2015, 83 in 2016, 47 in 2017 and 66 until October 2018. The WPSI data records 127 leopards killed by poachers in 2015, 154 in 2016 and 159 in 2017.

“The management and protection of wildlife including leopard is primarily the responsibility of the concerned State/ Union Territory Governments,” Sharma said in his statement to Parliament.

“Today we are losing far more leopards than tigers,” the WCT’s Andheria. “Going by last year’s figures we are losing five leopards every four days. Yet, we do not have a national database. States like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Uttarakhand may have the data, but not all states do.”

Some of the deaths tend not to be reported because forest officers, who must do so, are also responsible for protecting leopards.

“We have noticed in recent years that most deaths are reported as natural or territorial deaths, and very few are reported as poaching,” said Sarosh Lodhi, Founder Member, CLaW, an independent forum of wildlife enthusiasts. “If their failure (forest officers) to protect animals is known, it will tarnish their image, and, so, it is likely that they cover up incidents.”

Lodhi agreed that leopards were “today far more at risk” than tigers. “We need a Project Leopard to protect them,” he said, a reference to Project Tiger, the 46-year-old central government programme to save the leopard’s larger cousin, of which 2,226 remain in the wild, according to the 2014 census conducted by National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). Leopards are not easy to count since they range across India and many are outside the protected areas. However the Tiger Census conducted in 2014 provided rough estimates of over 12,000 leopards as they were spotted during the camera trapping exercise conducted for the tigers.

Athreya remains hopeful for the leopard.

“The beauty of our country is that we are a very old civilisation and we share a cultural relationship with our animals,” she said. “We are culturally open to their presence. With good conservation practises, we have seen the numbers of big animals like tigers and lions increasing over the years. This makes me believe that the leopard will also bounce back. We only need to do our bit to prevent conflict.”

(Chacko, a postgraduate in journalism, is assistant professor of journalism at Mount Carmel College, Bengaluru, and an IndiaSpend intern.)

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