The title, ‘Status of Leopards in India’, is a bit misleading as this report is on the number of leopards in tiger States, not for the whole of India
A report titled the ‘Status of leopards in India: 2018’, prepared by the National Tiger Conservation Authority and Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, was released in 2020. However, the title is a bit misleading as this report is on the status of leopards in the tiger States of India, not for the whole of the country. In fact, the ‘Status of leopards in India: 2018’ is based on the fourth cycle of tiger population assessment in the Tiger Landscape that was undertaken using the camera image capture and recapture method.
It is stated in the report that the leopard population in India has increased from 7,910 in 2014 to 12,580 sub-adult and adult leopards in 2018 in the 18 tiger-bearing States of the country. Immediately, the media jumped on this number without going into the report and stated that the leopard population had increased by 60 per cent in India. The international media, too, highlighted that the population of the smart cat was 12,580 subadult and adult leopards, but this was only half the truth. During the All-India Tiger Estimation in 2018, the leopard population, too, was estimated within the forested habitats of the tiger States. However, within the tiger States also, other leopard-occupied areas such as non-forested habitats (coffee and tea plantations, ravines and other areas where leopards are known to occur), higher elevations in the Himalayas, arid landscapes and a majority of the landscapes in the North-East were not sampled.Therefore, the population estimation should be considered as the minimum number of leopards in the tiger distribution range of the country.
The fact remains that leopards are present in 29 States and one Union Territory in India and the fourth cycle of assessment was restricted to tiger distribution areas in just 18 States. Even in these States, the entire leopard habitat was not surveyed. This raises concerns as these findings do not represent the facts or the leopard numbers for the entire country.
For instance, the high concentration zone of the leopard in the Himalayas, that has been witnessing intense human-leopard conflicts in Uttarakhand, was not covered in the survey. The Forest Department of Uttarakhand estimated that there were about 2,100- 2,400 leopards in the State during the three previous leopard censuses. This reveals that about two-third leopard habitats were not surveyed in Uttarakhand in the fourth cycle of assessment in 2018. Two other Himalayan territories i.e. Himachal Pradesh and the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir are in the leopard zone. They, too, have been facing serious man-leopard conflicts. The Forest Department of Himachal Pradesh had reported 761 leopards in the previous count, although field officials were of the opinion that there was a higher population of the elusive cat than had been reported.
Similarly, Jammu and Kashmir also support hundreds of leopards. Gujarat is another major State which counted 1,395 leopards (1,220 adult and subadults while the rest were cubs) in 2016. Except for some areas, say below 10 per cent of the forested land, the entire forested area of seven States in the North-East and West Bengal was not covered in this survey. An analysis of the data procured from all Chief Wildlife Wardens revealed that about one-third of the leopard population occurs in about 384 Protected Areas, covering about 1,36,551 square kilometre (sq km) in India. The current occupancy area may be roughly in the range of about half of Indian forests, say about 3,00,000 sq km.
The report on the ‘Status of leopards in India: 2018’ in tiger States, the leopard censuses by forest departments in non-tiger States and many other studies provide the basis for assessment of the population of leopards in India.
Outside the country, the Indian leopard, a subspecies out of eight subspecies of leopards in the world, has a population of about 1,200 to 1,500 in Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and a few in the bordering countries of Bangladesh, Myanmar and China. Out of about 20,000-22,000 adult and subadult leopards belonging to seven subspecies of the Asian leopards, three-fourth are found in India and the rest in about 30 countries in Asia. The African leopard, a subspecies, has a different story as its number is several times, perhaps 20 times, the combined population of all leopards in Asia. Even though the number of leopards in India has increased over the years, there is a need to conserve the beautiful and highly intelligent animal. This is becoming more and more difficult given the increasing instances of man-animal conflict in India which, more often than not, results in the big cat being at the receiving end of man’s cruelty. It is high time that we learn to live in harmony with nature and leave the habitats of these creatures untouched. After all, they too have as much right over this world as we humans do. Our children need to be taught this lesson in sharing the world and its resources from a very young age. Else, the loss will be ours.
(The writer is Member, National Board for Wildlife. The views expressed are personal.)