Washington, Dec 4 : Indian wildlife authorities have captured a flurry of leopard-skins, which suggests that as tigers decline; poachers are increasingly on the prowl for the country's other big cat.
According to a report in National Geographic News, at least 141 leopards have fallen to poaching so far in 2008, compared to 24 tigers killed in the same period, indicated by estimates from the New Delhi-based nonprofit Wildlife Protection Society of India.
About 27 of those skins have been taken in just the past few months, which conservationists say is evidence of a spike in poaching.
"The situation is serious," said Tito Joseph, program manager at the wildlife society, which has tracked poacher arrests and animal-skin seizures in India for more than a decade.
But, the increased number of seizures may be due to improved wildlife enforcement and agency coordination, rather than an actual rise in leopard killings, according to Ramesh Pandey, deputy director of the government's new Wildlife Crime Control Bureau.
Authorities seize between 150 to 200 leopard skins and bodies from around the country every year-implying a steady market for leopard skins and parts.
Even so, "there is no doubt that the leopard is under threat," Pandey said.
According to experts, Indian leopard skin and parts largely wind up in China, traveling via Nepal.
The skin serves various decorative purposes, while leopard bones and other parts are most likely masqueraded as tiger products and sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine, according to Joseph of the wildlife society.
Although tiger goods are much more valuable than leopard merchandise, their population in India has dwindled to just 1,411 individuals, with most of them in protected reserves.
That's why it is getting more cost-effective for traders to get into the leopard business.
"There is increased value for leopard shins, claws, bones, and penises because it is getting much harder to catch tigers," said Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of Wildlife SOS, a nonprofit animal rescue group in New Delhi that works with the Indian government to nab poachers.
It's also easier to catch leopards because they are more plentiful than tigers.
While poachers are responsible for supplying at least half of all leopard skins and parts to China, leopards killed by farmers and landowners provide another source.
"These skins and body parts then end up in big trading hub centers like Nagpur or New Delhi before crossing the border and going away. All this is no secret," said Rajesh Gopal, member secretary of the government's National Tiger Conservation Authority.