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India records increase in leopard population but real number could be much more

The latest estimation of leopards in India pegs the country’s leopard population at 12,852 in 2018, marking a rise of 60% from 2014

In this file photo taken on 10 April, 2020, a leopard reacts while walking inside the Dachigam National Park on the outskirts of Srinagar. India's leopard population has grown more than 60 per cent in four years to almost 13,000 animals even though their habitats are fragmenting, according to a new government report released on 21 December 21, 2020. (Photo credit: Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP)
In this file photo taken on 10 April, 2020, a leopard reacts while walking inside the Dachigam National Park on the outskirts of Srinagar. India's leopard population has grown more than 60 per cent in four years to almost 13,000 animals even though their habitats are fragmenting, according to a new government report released on 21 December 21, 2020. (Photo credit: Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP)

A 60 per cent rise in India’s leopard population has been recorded in 2018, compared to 2014, but there is one area in the country, the northeastern landscape, where its population is facing “major threat” due to land-use changes triggered by agriculture, tea gardens and linear infrastructure projects.

According to the Indian government’s ‘Status of Leopard in India, 2018’ report published on December 21, the northeastern landscape has 141 leopards out of 12,852 estimated across the country 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.

The report said leopards are distributed widely in the northeastern landscape from the high altitude of the eastern Himalayas to the forests adjacent to tea gardens in the flood plains but due to sampling inadequacy, the leopard population was estimated only from the camera trapped sites of northern West Bengal, Manas and Nameri tiger reserves of Assam and the southern valley of the Pakke Tiger Reserve of Arunachal Pradesh.

In fact, the actual number of leopards could be more than recorded in the report. “Few photographs were obtained from Kaziranga, and Namdapha tiger reserves but due to low detection and low sample size, the population was not estimated from these tiger reserves,” said the report.

Besides land use factors such as linear infrastructure projects, the report revealed that poaching and human-wildlife conflict are other major factors impacting the species in the northeastern landscape.

Similarly in the Uttarakhand region, the actual population of leopards could be more than recorded. Vaibhav Singh, who is divisional forest officer, Rudraprayag (Uttarakhand) said, the report underestimates the number of leopards in the state as it is only looking at the tiger areas in the state.

“The actual number of leopards in Uttarakhand alone can easily be 3 to 4 times (3,000-4,000) than what is in the report (839). Moreover, one concern for middle Himalayan regions like Uttarakhand is that a lot of land is diverted for infrastructural projects as the population is scattered across the hills. However, this leads to an increase in the interface of urban and forest habitations…this would ultimately lead to an increase in human-wildlife conflict,” Singh explained to Mongabay-India.

During the all India tiger estimation 2018 (released in July 2019), which pegged the population of the country’s national animal at 2,967, leopard population was also estimated within the forested habitats in tiger occupied states. But the other leopard occupied areas such as non-forested habitats (coffee and tea plantations and other land uses from where leopards are known to occur), higher elevations in the Himalayas, arid landscapes and the majority of the northeast landscape were not sampled.

“Therefore, the population estimation should be considered as the minimum number of leopards in each of the landscapes,” the report said.

Now, according to the latest report, the national estimation of 12,852 leopards is 60 per cent higher than the 2014 estimation of 7,910. Of the 12,852 leopards, Madhya Pradesh tops the list with 3,421 leopards and is followed by Karnataka with 1,783 leopards and Maharashtra with 1,690.

According to the report, leopards were found in prey-rich protected areas as well as multi-use forests. It said that a total of 5,240 adult individual leopards were identified from a total of 51,337 leopard photographs using pattern recognition software.

India’s Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar said during the launch that the increase in tiger, lion and leopard numbers over the last few years is a testimony to the conservation efforts of the wildlife and biodiversity of the country.

The report also noted that the global range of leopards is dwindling and the population is declining and the species probably demands similar conservation attention as that of tigers in India. Besides the leopard report, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) are also expected to come out with reports on population estimation of several other species.

S.P. Yadav, who is the member-secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority noted that the report underlines the point that “investment in protecting tiger as an umbrella species is important.”

“When tiger prospers all other animals prosper – so when the tiger is being protected other species like leopards in tiger range areas will automatically get more protection,” Yadav told Mongabay-India.

Madhya Pradesh is now a leopard state too but habitat degradation is a concern

Among the states, Madhya Pradesh with 3,421 leopards has the highest number of leopards recorded – which is about 26 per cent of the total number estimated in the country, according to the report. Compared to the 2014 estimation, when M.P. had reported 1,817 leopards, the state has added 1,604 leopards, marking an increase of more than 88 per cent in the latest report.

The state also holds the tag of ‘tiger state’ as it is home to 526 tigers. While Madhya Pradesh’s government is celebrating these numbers, habitat degradation of the state’s forest is significant – a point emphasised in the Status of Leopards in India, 2018 report as well.

“The state of Madhya Pradesh had the largest leopard population in India. Due to their adaptive nature and behavioural plasticity, they are reported to persist in the human-dominated landscape and are more prone to human-wildlife conflict. Other major threats for leopard in this landscape are habitat fragmentation and poaching,” the report said.

The state has been witnessing a frequent rise in leopard-human conflicts outside protected areas too.

“These numbers are nothing if we keep losing habitat for wildlife. It will increase the human-wildlife conflict,” Ajay Dubey, Madhya Pradesh based wildlife activist, told Mongabay-India.

“The forest department is neglecting the protocol established by the NTCA which applies for leopards as well. Forest officials cremate leopards without following the proper protocol. As a result, we don’t have accurate data of the birth and death of leopards,” Dubey said.

Madhya Pradesh lost 26 tigers this year out of 99 tigers that died in 2020 in the country. The state lost 172 tigers from 2012 to 2019. While there is no official data available for leopard death in India, a non-profit – the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) – recorded 435 leopard deaths in the year 2020 and 494 in the year 2019.

A team of four researchers — Sandeep Chouksey, Somesh Singh, Virat Singh Tomar and R.P.S. Bhagel — studied the leopard-human conflict in Bandhavgarh tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh with special reference to people perception and community-based conservation. In 2018, the study highlighted the issue of habitat loss and said: “the expansion of human settlement and rising pressure on natural resources has intensified the conflict between leopards and humans.”

Can increasing human-leopard conflict be managed?

The leopard report shows that the animal is a widely distributed species across the country and compared to other carnivores it has been able to survive better in an increasingly human-dominated landscape largely due to its adaptable behaviour.

“Leopards serve as apex predators in most of the forested landscapes in India, beyond the realm of tiger and lion. While leopards have been persecuted historically, we find them evoking a negative response in large parts of the country due to negative interactions with humans all the more today,” noted the report.

It explained that leopard habitats are being increasingly fragmented, and such small fragmented areas with low wild prey densities cannot harbour a sizeable population of leopards. “This has resulted in leopards venturing out into human-dominated landscapes and ending up in conflicts. Intense conflicts are mostly reported from hills of Shivalik-Terai landscape and parts of central India.”

The report said there is an increasing need for corridor connectivity, and improvement of habitat, to reduce interface with humans and thereby reducing the chance of conflict.

It cautioned that with leopards venturing out into human habitation more often, developmental projects need appropriate mitigation measures and greener technologies to sustain not only leopards but also other carnivores and biodiversity in general.

The country, the report stated, is at a “juncture where socio-economic development and conservation are at a critical point” and thus it is important, more than ever, to “incorporate and implement a model of adaptive management of protected areas which are still in poor condition and can be improved, and explore possible models for the coexistence of large carnivores with humans.”

This story first appeared on Mongabay.

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