Wildlife & Biodiversity

No need for a new, separate leopard census, say experts

This is when leopard deaths in India have reached a five-year high, with over a third poached

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 18 December 2018
A leopard in Jhalana near Jaipur, Rajasthan. Credit: Getty Images

Wildlife conservationists have dismissed the need for a separate, new census for leopards, saying that it would be an exercise in futility.

On December 17, media reports had quoted numbers recorded by Delhi-based non-profit Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) which stated that India recorded its highest leopard mortality over the past four years in 2018. As many as 460 leopard deaths were recorded across India in 2018 between January 1 and December 14, compared to 431 in 2017, 440 in 2016, 399 in 2015 and 331 in 2014.

As per a census done in 2015-2016, India’s leopard population was estimated to be between 12,000 and 14,000 individuals. However, independent conservationists had panned the estimation, saying that the numbers could not be taken at face value. They had also said that the leopard census had “piggy-backed" on the tiger census, since it was restricted to the tiger range states, except West Bengal and the northeast.

Given the harrowing mortality figures of this year though, the question arises as to whether it is time to conduct a new and separate census for the leopard in India.

Wildlife conservationist and director for Science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Bengaluru, K Ullas Karanth was circumspect about the mortality figures.

“These 460 leopard deaths represent just a few detected cases... because neither the probability of detection nor the actual area from where these deaths came from can be assessed they are not meaningful data in any sense,” he told DTE.

 “I would expect, because leopards occur in both forests and farm lands, and can subsist on small prey both wild and domestic, they would occur over 3-4 times wider area than tigers can potentially live in. Therefore, I expect India to harbour 15,000 or more leopards. Given their high reproductive potential, at least 5,000 new leopards are being added to this population every year. So, total annual mortality numbers including cubs are likely to be of the same order, about 5,000 or so. Therefore, these reported 460 deaths may represent only 10-15 per cent of real leopard mortalities. Hence, all these other speculations around these reported numbers are not very meaningful,” he added.

Karanth was scathing in his attack on the type of estimation methods used to count tigers and said the same could never be used for leopards.

“After observing how poorly and unscientifically tiger numbers are being estimated under the present government monopoly, in spite of spending 10-15 crores per effort in the past 3 surveys, it is a pointless waste of money to use the same survey approach for leopards,” he said.

“You cannot 'piggy-back' leopard surveys on tiger surveys, because there are vast areas where the distributions of the two species do not overlap. While knowing the dynamics of a specific leopard population in a reserve or management unit is useful if estimates are made rigorously, wider scale regional leopard numbers have no utility- and in any case- they are far too difficult to derive rigorously,” Karanth noted.

Similar thoughts were echoed by Mayukh Chatterjee, head of Delhi-based non-profit Wildlife Trust of India’s (WTI) Human-Wildlife Conflict Mitigation Division.

“A new leopard census would be welcome. But the question is how do you do it?” he asked. “Leopards share habitat with both, tigers and humans. They reside in protected areas as well outside them in agricultural fields, scrublands and riverine tracts. How do you count such a widely distributed population? Secondly, what would the estimation give you? We all know that there are substantial numbers of leopards and that they are well distributed,” he reasoned.

Instead of conducting a new leopard census, Chatterjee felt the cause of the leopard would be served better if conservation strategies were made a priority of policy decisions.

“A stringent policy action should be to bring down retailiatory killings as well poaching for trade. If you can bring down killings of leopards and teach humans to live with them like Vidya Athreya did successfully in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony, leopards are going to boom back. They are much more adaptable than tigers in that sense,” he stated.

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