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Leopards are among the most neglected big cats in India: Here's why

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New Delhi, Jan 20: When it comes to the poaching of endangered species, elephants, tigers and rhinos tend to be in the limelight. But a new report sets out to plug the information gap on a different species that is imperiled by a tide of demand related to rising affluence in Asia: leopards.

Factors like loss of habitat, a shrinking prey base, man-animal conflict, and organized poaching and poisoning of the animal are leading to the decimation of the leopard population. Further, lack of awareness about the ecological crisis and poorly managed forests are also responsible for a decline in their numbers.

Leopards are among the most neglected big cats in India: Heres why

According to data given by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change during the winter session of Parliament, 260 leopards were poached between 2015 and 2018 with 66 big cats falling prey in 2018 alone. The number of poaching incidents was 47 in 2017.

Untrained forest officials and delayed compensation to victims of big cat attacks are some of the reasons for the steep rise of 40 percent rise in leopard poaching cases last year in comparison to 2017, wildlife experts say.

Revenge killing

"Humans poach leopards in retaliation to attacks on their livestock and the tedious process of compensating for their loss make them take law in their own hands for a quick solution. The process of compensation needs to be expedited to stop this revenge killing," the NTCA official.

Expressing a similar concern over the spiralling instances of leopard poaching, an official of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) said human-wildlife conflict is the concentrated in agricultural regions where human population growth begins to encroach on animal territory.

"In such situations, wildlife causes destruction to crops, livestock, infrastructure and human lives. Thus, to minimise the human reaction against wild animals, effective mechanism to cover the loss and immediate support in the form of compensation is required," said Tilotama Verma, Additional Director of WCCB.

Delayed compensation

While the NTCA and WCCB called for effective resolution of the conflict by streamlining the process of compensating the victims in case of attacks, environment activist Gaurav Bansal said it was the forest staff crunch, lack of training and arms for officials that are some of the reasons behind the rise in poaching incidents.

"While the poachers have guns, the forest officers have sticks, which are not enough to face them," Bansal, also a lawyer, said.

Untrained forest staff

The view was shared by the NTCA official who said that good quality arms must be provided to the forest officials by the respective state governments.

"Weapons for forest officials are being procured in some states like Assam. There have INSAS rifles (Indian Small Arms System) but there is a lack of regular supply of good quality ammunition to them. The state governments must provide proper arms to forest officials to tackle the problem," the official said.

According to the WCCB official, awareness programmes and sensitisation of communities living around forests can reduce leopard poaching.

"Leopards are directly poached for their body parts which are sold internationally for medicinal value and decoration. Increased awareness on wildlife, its role in maintaining healthy ecosystems and the immorality of driving another species to extinction will definitely help address issues of poaching of wild animals," Verma said.

The official also held practices like witchcraft and black magic by poor and illiterate communities responsible for poaching of the big cats.

They also emphasised on providing proper training to the frontline staff of forest and police on the basics of wildlife law and identification of wildlife species.

Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Mahesh Sharma had said the law enforcement authorities in states maintain strict vigil against poaching of wild animals including leopards.

According to state-wise date provided by the minister on leopard poaching, Uttarakhand was found with the maximum cases of 15 followed by Madhya Pradesh which had 13 poaching incidents in 2018.

There are no reliable estimates of how many leopards exist in India. The animals are notoriously wary of humans and are spread out over large areas, so tracking their numbers is difficult.

Leopard poaching is an offence under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 which entails up to seven-year imprisonment with a minimum of Rs 25,000 fine. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which categorises leopards as "near threatened" on its red list of species, says that leopard populations have become extinct in some parts of the world and dwindled to tiny numbers in others.

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