Leopard country

Issue 01, 2021

Leopard country

Daulat Singh Shaktawat |author

Issue 01, 2021

India’s leopard population has grown by 60 per cent, according to a report released recently by the Indian government. This is a significant success for the country’s conservation efforts as the species’ numbers rapidly dwindle in other parts of the world. Wildlife conservationist Daulat Singh Shaktawat offers an analysis

It was recently announced that India has recorded a significant rise in its leopard population. According to the Indian government’s report titled ‘Status of Leopard in India, 2018’, published on December 21, 2020, the leopard population in India has seen a 60 per cent growth in the period of four years from 7,910 in 2014 to 12,852 in 2018. As per the report, of India’s current leopard population, the Northeastern region is home to 141 leopards while the Shivalik Hills and Gangetic Plains range has recorded 1,253 leopards. Central India and the Eastern Ghats range has 8,071 leopards, and Western Ghats range has 3,386. Interestingly, the report also says that due to sampling inadequacy, the numbers recorded could be lower than the actual figure. The leopard population in India had started decreasing in the late 1960s. After wide-spread conservation efforts of the government and independent organisations, there has been a significant rise in their numbers. Not just leopards, in recent years, Indian forests have seen a rise in the numbers of such big cats as tigers and lions too. Now, along with the rise in the number of leopards, this overall increase is a testimony to India’s conservation efforts in protecting its wildlife and biodiversity. Congratulating those working on the conservation of leopards, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “Great news! After lions and tigers, the leopard population increases. Congratulations to all those who are working towards animal conservation. We have to keep up these efforts and ensure our animals live in safe habitats.”

A female leopard being released into the wild at Jaldapara National Park in West Bengal. In India, leopards often stray into human habitats but care is taken to rehabilitate them back in the forest

In India, around 15 species of wild cats are found, among which the leopard (Panthera pardus) is one of the big cats, and one of the most beautiful and agile. In the habitat of the tiger or the lion, the leopard is a co-predator. Leopards are known for their unique skill and adaptive nature, which have helped them to survive. India remains the largest home for this animal outside of Africa, and the fact that the animals are thriving here is extremely encouraging, as it is under threat in other parts of the world. The leopard is found in the wild across most of India, except the Alpine Himalayas, the extreme western parts of  Rajasthan’s desert, Rann of Kutch in Gujarat and the deltaic Sundarbans in West Bengal. Its habitat varies from dense forests and open jungles to scrub areas. It is  also found around densely populated cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru and Mysuru. A leopard’s adaptable trait also brings it into direct conflict with humans, posing serious consequences to the lives of those affected and impeding larger conservation goals. The ‘Status of Leopard’ report highlights this factor as one of the many that pose a threat to the conservation efforts of the species in India.  Linear infrastructure projects and poaching are other major factors impacting the species, especially in the Northeastern region. The Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change has a set of operational guidelines regarding human–leopard conflict and the best practices to handle such situations. The aim of the guidelines is to reduce human conflict with leopards, discourage translocation of the animals and suggest improved ways of tackling emergency conflict scenarios.

Newborn leopard cubs at the Assam State Zoo in Guwahati. Leopard cubs are regularly rescued from the surrounding area and brought to the zoo

According to the report, the second-biggest threat to leopards (as other wildlife) is linear infrastructure growth such as roads, railways, power lines and canals, which is necessary to support India’s economic development but also adversely impacts wildlife. Linear infrastructure may require relatively small portions of forest land but has a disproportionately large impact, resulting in the disruption of wildlife corridors, which, in turn, lead to the fragmentation of wild habitat and wildlife mortality. India has taken several steps to harmonise biodiversity conservation and linear infrastructure growth with actions that include creating and strengthening protected areas where wildlife can thrive, and adopting mainstreaming approaches. The latter refers to ways that make linear infrastructure animal-friendly. Technology is being used in forests across India to monitor and protect all big cats, including leopards. The camera trap method and radio-telemetry technology are being used for understanding the behaviour of these elusive animals. This helps in collating information about the animals’ lifestyle, which, in turn, aids in protecting them from various threats and in preventing man-animal conflict.

The Indian government has been making rigorous and constant efforts towards afforestation, improving habitat, taking stringent protection measures and creating wild corridors in concerned states. This continuous effort has resulted in significant growth in forest cover and wild population. As per the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2019, there has been an increase of 5,188 sq km of forest and tree cover at the national level, which has contributed to the rise in the number of all wild animals, including the leopard.

A pair of snow leopards at the Hemis National Park, Ladakh. In India, this rare big cat is found in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh

Daulat Singh Shaktawat

Daulat Singh Shaktawat is a wildlife conservationist and a naturalist, and the former Dy Conservator of Forests at Ranthambore National Park. He has published a book titled My Encounter with the Big Cat and Other Adventures in Ranthambhore. He is also a consultant of the World Wide Fund (WWF)-India and a member of the members of State Level Standing Committee.
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