The status of the leopard in India

Print edition : June 18, 2021

The leopard is the smallest species of the genus Panthera but is muscular and its head, neck and forelimbs are very strong. Photo: Vijayarajan Muthu

Caves and rock shelters are the usual haunts of this predator. Photo: Shravna Goswami

The leopard’s prey is generally small- to medium-sized common wild and domestic mammals, but it is adaptable as far as its food habits and habitats are concerned. Photo: Neeraj Bantia

They can swiftly climb straight up a clean-boled tree. Photo: Neeraj Bantia

They prefer the safety of trees where they can keep their troublesome co-predators such as tigers at bay. Photo: Indranil Paul

The solid black melanistic colour variant of the leopard is not a different species. Photo: Manju Hegde

Because there are a very small number of black leopards, their location is generally kept secret. Photo: Manju Hegde

Leopards are inherently shrewd and excellent at camouflage. Photo: Nikhil Trivedi

They are nocturnal and generally hunt at night. Photo: Indranil Paul

An alert adult taking stock of its surroundings. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun

Leopards are prolific breeders, with a gestation period that is only three months long. Here, a mother and cub. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun

Generally elusive, the leopard is a great attraction for tourists. Photo: Neeraj Bantia

Although small in size, the leopard, estimated at around 13,000 in India, is a skilled and versatile hunter. But the fact is that there are six leopard deaths for every tiger death in the country. This situation can change only if there is a specific leopard conservation policy that will realise the country’s potential to host an even larger population of this often ignored cat.

IT was a fortuitous encounter on a late November afternoon at the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. The slanting rays of the setting sun were falling on the ground through the lush leafy vegetation. I had seen a leopard from a distance alerted by a langur’s guttural calls and stopped the vehicle to watch through field glasses the concluding part of its hunt. The sturdy leopard was dragging a chital across the forest road and became wary on seeing the approaching vehicle but continued to lug the animal to the other side of the road. It unclasped its grip on the quarry’s neck and sat on his haunches for a while, panting and furtively looking at the vehicle. What a pair of shrewd piercing eyes it had! It got up again, jerked its head twice while moving its long and slender tail up and sideways, and looked up at the trees nearby. Then grabbing the chital again by the neck, it started moving towards one of them. And with the chital’s throat in its powerful jaws and the body between its four legs, the beast swiftly climbed straight up until it reached a forked branch at a safe height, stopping only once for a moment to adjust its bearings with this load of around 50 kg. The predator and its food were now in a safe haven, well out of the reach of its wild rivals and camp followers!

The leopard (Panthera pardus) is the smallest species of the genus Panthera. In India, the leopard is commonly known as “panther”, which is a misnomer. This long-standing wrong usage has occurred because of the solid black melanistic colour variant of the leopard known as the black panther, which is not a different species but is actually a leopard in disguise. While as per biological systematics any member of the Panthera genus bearing solid black patterns can be called a panther, the word generally applies only to the leopard and the jaguar occurring in some parts of the United States, Mexico and South America. There are nine subspecies of leopard in the world, and even now India supports the largest population of a subspecies (the Indian subspecies is P. pardus fusca) outside Africa.

Shrewd survival

Nature has compensated this amazing animal for its relatively small size and the fact that it in competition with larger carnivores by making it adaptable as far as its food habits and habitats are concerned. It can operate in different ecological settings, resulting in its ubiquity in forested and inhabited areas, and it can change hunting techniques to make the most of its efforts. An opportunistic predator, it can choose from an extensive menu to survive. Besides the usual small- to medium-sized common wild and domestic mammals, the leopard can also go for monkeys, hares, rodents, birds, eggs, porcupines, and so on. It is a quick and quiet feeder, thus avoiding the risk of drawing the attention of any other competitor to its feeding.

Leopards have small round rosettes, or rose-shaped patterns, all over a generally yellow body coat colour. The coat colour and rosettes may vary slightly under different environmental conditions across its distribution range throughout the world. Although it hardly ever gains more than half the weight of a full-grown tiger, the beast is powerful and a skilled and versatile hunter and can, in spite of its small size, tackle medium-sized prey with its strong and massive skull and powerful jaw muscles. An expert tree climber, the animal is known for carrying its prey up into trees to a safe height so that it can devour its prey at leisure. In trees, the leopard can also keep its troublesome co-predators such as tigers, wild dogs and hyenas at bay. Its powerful forelimbs and the strong muscles of its head, neck and scapula (shoulder bones) make these climbs of this Spider-Man of the animal world appear amazingly effortless. Stocky legs and the long, slender tail and powerful claws help the beast negotiate thin and slippery branches without losing its balance. Twice during my years in forest service, I was mesmerised by an arboreal male-female pair perched high in a tree and taking stock of activity below. On another occasion, I saw a small sounder of wild pigs fiercely chasing and treeing a leopard. The sounder, however, crossed the tree almost nonchalantly, and the leopard climbed down as fast as it had climbed up and vanished into the forest.

Ecological niche partitioning

In a wildlife ecosystem, a natural segregation amongst wild animal species has evolved to reduce interspecific competition. This ecological niche partitioning exists in food habits, feeding strategies, habitat separation and other specific ecological requirements. The body size and metabolic rates of different species also have to play an important role in this. The distribution of carnivores—including the tiger, the main predator, and the leopard and the wild dog, the co-predators—is regulated by the presence and movements of ungulate species. Tigers and leopards can coexist so long as the prey base is good. The depletion of the wild prey base, however, is more likely to affect tigers than leopards, which may have smaller and more or less stable home ranges close to human habitation. In spite of the availability of a good prey base in a protected area, tigers are also known to enter villages and kill livestock. Speaking generally, leopards operate in such a ghostly manner in an inhabited area that there is often less chance of a public outcry against it in the event of an animal kill. Tigers, however, make bold entries and may remain with the kill for hours, making life difficult for village residents. There seems to be no competition between the tiger and the leopard, and they follow the tactics of mutual avoidance. Leopards are, however, known to operate close to tigers. Tigers sometimes usurp the kills of leopards.

While leopards avoid humans, an old, sick or injured animal can attack and even kill humans to sustain itself. Although grossly underestimated because of their small size, they can go after humans if their natural prey base is depleted. The infamous Panar leopard in the Kumaon region killed over 400 humans before the famous hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett finally dispatched it in 1910. He observed in The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag that a man-eating leopard is more problematic and dangerous than a man-eating tiger. The Rudraprayag man-eater operated over an area of around 1,300 square kilometres, terrorising around 50,000 residents of the area, and was responsible for killing a large number of humans (officially only 125) between 1918 and 1926. This was an animal that got a lot of publicity at that time even in the international press. Leopards are inherently shrewd, excellent at camouflage, elusive, highly agile, solitary, stealthy and scheming, which is what makes them what they are: ghost-like creatures.

Threats and status

The leopard is listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which means that it is supposed to be enjoying serious protection. However, in India, a leopard’s death does not make headlines, and wildlifers say that the country loses around six leopards for every single tiger death. A gradual decrease in the world leopard population over the years has also resulted in the animal being moved from the “near threatened” to the “vulnerable” category on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red Data List. The indifference towards the species has meant that India never prioritised getting a reliable status for leopards in the country. In this bleak scenario, the Wildlife Institute of India, based in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, was able to release relevant details of the overall leopard population in India.

Leopard-specific data collection

These details are the outcome of leopard-specific data collection, including photo-captures, conducted in 2018 during the All India Tiger Estimation. In this protocol only forested areas of tiger-bearing States were sampled for leopards, and non-forested areas, very high elevations, arid regions and most of the areas in the north-east had to be left out. Therefore, a large area in the country where the leopard occurs remained unsampled owing to logistical constraints, leading to an estimate of the minimum leopard population in the country. In this exercise, a total of 51,337 images of leopards were retrieved from camera traps. Data compilation and individual identification of leopards was done using the Hotspotter and ExtractCompare software programmes. Besides, leopard abundance was estimated using spatially explicit capture-recapture methods on camera-trap data. A total of 5,240 adult leopards were photo-captured in the exercise, and the overall leopard population in surveyed areas of the country was estimated statistically to be 12,852. The results also suggest that the presence of leopards was recorded in 3,475 of the total of 10,602 grids that were surveyed. The three States with the highest number of leopards are Madhya Pradesh with 3,421 leopards, followed by Karnataka with 1,783 and Maharashtra with 1,690. The total estimated figure may seem impressive in isolation, but when compared with the scope and potential of Indian habitats to host leopards, it is clear that conservation of the animal needs to be strengthened under a specific policy.

While studies strongly suggest that India has already lost around 75 to 90 per cent of its leopard population in the past 120 to 200 years, its omnipresence, especially outside forested areas, and the fixation on tigers have meant that the decreasing population of leopards in the country has not been noticed. There is some complacency because of the abundance of its population. While this figure amid the biotic pressure animals face in the country needs to be appreciated, one is at a loss to understand the annual death toll of this ignored cat. The leopard is a prolific breeder, but poaching, habitat loss and prey depletion are the usual threats to its survival.

While its conservation status in and around good protected areas is satisfactory because of professional management, including effective anti-poaching strategies and conclusive investigations of poaching cases, in the rest of the areas much is left to be desired. Psychologically, just because this cat is not a tiger, anti-poaching strategies are substandard and crime investigation after the seizure of body parts and poaching tools, such as traps, snares and poison, are not carried out professionally and remain unconcluded. It is a serious problem that forest staff working in managed forests that are not part of a protected area feel that their work has nothing to do with wildlife. No doubt, they have their own perception of what their duties and responsibilities in forest conservation are. Therefore, what is required is for the staff that work in places surrounding good protected areas to be trained periodically in leopard monitoring using field instruments. They should also be trained to understand the intricacies of poaching investigations and to make strong cases that will lead to quick convictions, which are an effective deterrent in conservation.

India needs a definitive leopard conservation policy. At present, conservation measures are being taken under the umbrella species concept, with the tiger being the umbrella species. The significance of leopard conservation needs to be emphasised through a wide range of leopard conservation awareness programmes, especially in villages. As is done for tigers, these programmes could include commemorating a “leopard day” or “leopard week”, taking members of ecodevelopment/forest protection committees and students on wildlife excursions to adjoining protected areas, and organising short nature camps for basic conservation education. Speaking generally, India is losing leopards mostly because of poaching and at the man-animal interface as a result of the leopard’s tendency to go for dogs and small cattle. Relying on the axiom “conservation through cooperation”, one needs to undertake, on an experimental basis, eco-sociological research in a few areas with the direct involvement of local communities to improve human-leopard coexistence through leopard monitoring and adaptive management schemes. Pilot projects can be started in target areas to improve habitats and develop a prey base for leopards to address villagers’ concerns. Village residents need to be paid adequate compensation quickly for the loss of their pets and small livestock. Attractive packages should be offered for voluntary relocation, and village residents made beneficiaries in ecotourism activities wherever possible. Permission for linear infrastructure passing through potential areas needs to be judiciously accorded and only after alternatives are considered. These developmental works are the cause of a number of accidental deaths of leopards.

Dr Rakesh Shukla is a former Research Officer at the Kanha Tiger Reserve.