Numbers on decline: After tigers, is it time for 'save leopard' project in India
New Delhi, Feb 08: Trashing reports that claim an increasing leopard population is leading to a rise in man-animal conflict, a recent study by scientists has revealed that their numbers have in fact dropped by 75-90% in the past 120 to 200 years.
The findings has once again triggered a debate for a tiger like conservation efforts to save leopards, known to exist very close to human habitations.
The scientists have recommended that similar conservation attention be given to leopards as is given to tigers to contain a further decline in distribution and numbers.
A study by the scientists at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, and the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore, has found that leopards have experienced a "human-induced 75 to 90 per cent population decline" over the past 120 to 200 years.
The report contrasts with earlier studies in India that had suggested stable or even increasing local leopard population trends.
However, the study also said that despite this population decline, leopards in India still retain high genetic variation, marked by four distinct genetic subpopulations, similar to patterns found in eastern and southern Africa.
"It is amazing - we have similar findings from two research approaches," said Krithi Karanth, chief conservation scientist at the CWS.
The research team has used historical records from hunting and taxidermy notes to documented observations from the mid-19th century through the 20th century to map changing habitats and occupancy of leopards.
"Leopards demand similar conservation attention like tigers in India," the researchers said.
The report believes that habitat loss, prey population declines, wildlife trade and human-wildlife conflict have contributed to the fall in the leopard population.
An effort akin to Project Tiger?
Save tiger project was a milestone for India but the journey has not been easy. Around the 1970s the tiger count was only one thousand and two hundred. But now we have as many as 2,967 tigers in the wild, a thirty per cent rise in the population in the last eight years.
This says a lot about the efforts put in by the government and the national parks.
India has shown its magic of conserving wildlife with novel initiatives, right from turning hunting grounds to tiger reserves. They have also updated the acts regarding forest and wildlife. Any kind of illegal trading of animals has been banned.
Human interference in any of the reserves and forests is not allowed and the world has recognised this project as the 'Most successful project'. The project made sure that along with tigers, other wildlife also gets protected.
What we now know about leopards
Despite being majestic as well as endangered, leopards are the most ignored big cats in India. Also referred to as Panthera pardus fusca, Leopard is a vulnerable species listed on the IUCN Red List because of its declining population.
The world got to know about this panther-like animal only in the 18th century. Leopard could run faster than any other animal.
In India, the population of Leopard was estimated to be around 12,000-14,000 as per 2015 census. The big cats conservation is often clubbed with tigers because many leopards are in tiger reserves.
Lack of a reliable count of their numbers has led to negligence, with no systematic protection plans.
SC on Project leopard
In November 2018, the Supreme Court had asked the Centre to launch efforts to save leopards on the lines of Project Tiger.
The order was passed following a public interest litigation filed by animal rights activist Anupam Tripathi.
Tripathi claimed in the year 2016 alone, India lost 455 leopards followed by 431 leopard deaths in 2017. In the first two months of this year i.e. January and February 2018, India has lost 106 leopards owing to a wide number of reasons....which are a mix of poaching and man and leopard conflict.
The court had sought a response from the Centre on whether it was open to launching a "Project Leopard" along the lines of Project Tiger. Project Tiger is a considered a highly successful conservation programme for the national animal.
Poaching and habitat loss have been major hurdle in saving the big cat. Their bones and other body parts are also in demand for use in traditional Asian medicines.