India's leopards are dying at a rate of at least one per day, according to a report released this week by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). At least half of those deaths have been caused by poachers seeking the big cats' valuable skins, claws and other body parts.
Leopards (Panthera pardus), which live in increasingly fragmented populations in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, are protected under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which completely prohibits commercial trade in the animals or their body parts. But as is the case with tigers and other species, poaching and illegal trade—along with other factors such as habitat loss—put enormous pressure on leopards. All nine of the world's leopard subspecies are listed as "Near Threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources due to declining populations. (Snow leopards, which are endangered, are a separate species.)
According to WPSI, at least 356 Indian leopards (the subspecies Panthera pardus fusca) died in 2011, 52 percent of which were killed by poachers. The organization and its partners warned that these numbers might represent just a portion of the actual deaths. "The cases that we have reported are just the tip of the iceberg," Anish Andheria of Sanctuary Asia, which helped gather the statistics, told New Delhi's NDTV. "The loss could be three to five times more because most of the incidents happened outside the forest range and also due to improper intelligence gathering."
Outside of poaching, 41 Indian leopard deaths last year were caused by conflicts with humans (usually from wandering into villages that have been established near leopard habitats), 29 by accidents (such as vehicle strikes), 21 by other animals and 65 by unknown reasons. An additional 14 leopards died following unsuccessful attempts to rescue the animals from human conflicts, such as a male that died in January 2011 after being caught in a farmer's wire snare or a female that died in May 2011 after panicked villages threw stones at it while waiting for forestry officials to arrive.
Thirty percent of the deaths occurred in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, which is also the state with the highest number of poached tigers.
All of this represents a continuous rise in Indian leopard deaths in the past decade. According to WPSI, there were 180 leopard deaths there in 2010, whereas 161 were recorded in 2009 and 126 in 2007. Only 89 leopards were killed in 2002, but nothing in the past decade compares with the 1,278 leopards killed in 2000.
Leopard deaths haven't slowed down in 2012: According to WPSI, 29 leopards have been poached (or their bodies seized from poachers) so far this year, and another 27 have died in other incidents.
Leopards are protected under India's Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. This law doesn't seem to stop poachers, but it does give authorities the ability to arrest and prosecute. On February 23 two men were arrested in Pune with a leopard skin worth more than $14,000. That same day, five leopard skins were seized from poachers in Uttarakhand. On February 28, Indian forestry officials in Ranchi announced that they arrested one man and sought his three accomplices for poaching a leopard in the Palamau Tiger Reserve and for trying to sell its skin, which they planned to price at more than $10,000. The leopard's claws and other body parts, which fetch lower prices, were missing and had probably already been sold.
Photo by Vineet Radhakrishnan via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license