the leopard - the under’cat’

It’s the other cat—living in the shadow of its celebrity cousin, the royal Bengal tiger; as endangered. Even more so. “One is to twenty,” announces Ramesh Pandey, from the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau. What he means is that for every tiger skin, 20 leopard skins are seized. That’s quite a jump from “one is to eight” that the CBI stated some four-years-back. The killing has escalated, boosted by a spiralling demand, and increasing returns on leopard derivatives.

It all started with one Jacqueline Kennedy who draped a leopard skin across her shapely shoulders, signifying to the world that the spotted skin, with its “wonderful fall” was chic. Everyone who was anyone wanted it-and lakhs of leopards were sacrificed-across Africa and Asia in the early 1960s to feed this tainted fashion. Leopard numbers plummeted, some sub species hovered on the brink. Consequently, the international conservation community imposed a ban on the commercial trade in leopard derivatives.

But the black markets continued to flourish…and so did the slaughter. Let’s just a take a quick look at a few of the major leopard skin seizures in the subcontinent in recent years. In 2004, police and customs officials caught a haul of 579 leopard skins, in Tibet, sourced from India. Next year, 45 skins were seized from Delhi. In 2006, an investigation in Tibet revealed that leopard (and tiger) skins were being sold openly, in huge numbers, in the market. The traders informed they had got the goods from India.

Its not just the skin—fashioned into coats, gloves, shoes, hats, trimmings—but there emerged a new market for bones (that make a potent brew) as well. They do a proxy job really, the ‘real thing’ being tiger bones, but the latter are increasingly difficult to harvest, with numbers dwindling. Leopard bones ‘make do’. It is a poor substitute, but even so, 120 have been slaughtered to date this year. These are, of course, only the recorded cases of poaching-“ a fraction of the actual count, given the enforcement (or lack thereof ),” in the words of the guardian of the forests and its denizens—a forest department official. Leopard claws are considered a lucky charm, they bring good luck, save for the leopard. Good market there, just one seizure in January 2000 yielded 18,080 claws—that’s over 1,200 dead animals.

But the curse of the leopard goes beyond its beautiful fur, or bones. The leopard is an animal at the cornerstone of severe man-animal conflict, If you were to map conflict zones in India, you will find that its spread across the country from desolate Baria in Gujarat, sugarcane fields of Junnar in Maharashtra, the hills of Pauri-Garwal in Uttranchal, Andhra Pradesh, Jammu, and even the teeming metropolis of Mumbai with a fragmented national park, Borivli, etched in its heart.

The Panthera pardus is essentially a shy, solitary animal, a rare sight in the wild. Not being the top predator, like the tiger, it lives on the fringes of the forests, surviving essentially on small game-barking deer, cheetal, langur-and in times of scarcity even frogs and hare. The leopard is a survivor, it can rule like a king, or exist like a pauper, eking out its living in the toughest of conditions. But its very adaptability has proved to be its bane.

As its habitat is destroyed, degraded, fragmented, and prey base depleted—mainly for the pot—the leopard is forced into human habitation, where it preys on goats, chicken, dogs; and if all else fails-man. In Pauri-Garwal, a particularly acute problem area, 62 people were killed between 1990 to 2001, and about an equal number of leopards lost their lives.

In this bitter battle between man and beast, there are no winners…

When cat mauls man, people understandably bay for its blood. They stone the beast to death, hack it to pieces, burn it to ashes. Sometimes in revenge; at other times for wandering into human habitation. A colleague of mine had filmed a horrifying sequence of a leopard being set on fire after it had strayed into a village in Uttar Pradesh. This area had no history of man-eating or even cattle kills-it was fear that lit the fire.

There are too many instances to recount- beaten to death in Nashik, hung and strangled to death near Bhopal, burnt alive near Dehradun.

Sadly, this fatal conflict has ensured that the leopard has no supporters, no impassioned conservationists taking up its cause, public opinion has not rallied for the leopard. However, there are solutions, in places where there is good prey base like Gir or Bandipur in Karnatka, cases of mortality are nil. There needs to be a massive effort to resurrect buzzer zone and end the decimation of its pray base. Unless we do so, and curb its poaching..there is little hope for this Prince of Cats.

4 Responses to “the leopard - the under’cat’

  • Beej-will read-would like to see the photo-feature-
    i know Valparai have been there-read about the incident, but the details escape me-it is just that there are so many such tragedies-all over the country…
    yes we do-and a long term approach-is the need of the hour

  • Sorry for the delayed reply-Mith-i have written extensivly on theplight of the leopard -in my book-in Sanctuary, in ‘popular’ press, like The Pioneer, The Man(its a man’s magazine!), i agree..the plight of the leopard-it twists my heart….

  • Hi Prerna:

    It is a pity that conservationaists are not taking much interest in saving the leopard. Even in well known magazines like Santuary I do not remember a single article describing the plight of the leopards in the past one year. There is no regat outcry over the huge number of leopard skins seized regularly. This needs to be changed. I woud like to request you to write a detaied article on the Leopards of india.

  • Hello Prerna,
    Speaking of man-leopard conflict, I wonder if you know about the two recent incidents in Valparai (Tamil Nadu) and in Chamundi Hills, Mysore. Public anger for the leopard is higher anywhere than for the tiger or perhaps, even the elephant. And this because the leopard, being adaptable, can live on urban fringes. However, the approach to managing the conflict is what is most worrisome. In both the incidents, the forest department and the local officials botched it big time. Conservationists were sidelined and the officious experts of the state took over. The leopard is a charismatic species, and a lot needs to be done for it. But first, we need a humane and sensible approach to man-animal conflict.

    Kalyan Varma has a very interesting photo-feature on the Valparai episode, which I wrote about.

Leave a Reply