Trashing speculation following the spate of recent incidents of human-leopard conflict which indicated that leopard numbers were on the rise, a study conducted by three wildlife scientists has found that the leopard population, on the contrary, has declined by a whopping 70-80 per cent over the past 100 years. The study, conducted over four years by Samrat Mondal of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Krithi K Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Uma Rama Krishnan of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), has been sent to wildlife journals for review.
Talking to TOI, Mondal said that the study was primarily based on genetic data analysis. “The population estimation of leopards has been done in different parts of the country but no cumulative data is available. We collected molecular data from fecal samples of leopards, and took into account depletion of their habitat as well as prey range over the past 100-odd years. When we analyzed the data, we found an almost 70-80 % decrease in the prevalence of leopards.”
In India, leopard conservation is often clubbed with tigers because many leopards are in tiger reserves. But because a reliable count of their numbers is not available, not much has been done for their systematic protection. “Tigers have got protection under the Project Tiger program, following which poachers have now started replacing tiger body parts with those of leopards. Around 4,000 body parts and bones of leopards were recovered in the period 1994-2013 compared to 1,000 body parts of tigers,” said Mondal.
Rising instances of conflict with humans is also impacting the big cats. “Severe depletion of habitat and prey is bringing leopards in direct conflict with humans,” said AK Singh, senior scientist with the World Wide Fund for Nature, Uttarakhand. Accentuating the problem, Mondal says, is the fact that leopards are territorial animals and solitary by nature. “Because their territory is getting encroached, instances of conflict are on the rise, which in turn is affecting their population.”