For a long time, the Royal Bengal Tiger and the Asiatic Lion have been stealing the national limelight, but now the Indian leopard is drawing our attention for a good reason.
The two supercats, the Asiatic lion and the Royal Bengal tiger, drew the maximum attention of conservationists in India. But the third largest cat, the Indian leopard, has its own story under the shadow of its two big tribes. Two recent stories — one, the death of 23 lions in Gir due to CDV and Protozoa infections and second, the hunt for a man-eating tiger in Maharashtra — grabbed headlines in Indian newspapers and electronic media.
But this story is about the smartest big cat — the Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), a sub-species of the nine subspecies of all leopards in the world. It is widely distributed across the country — from Jammu & Kashmir in the north-west to the southern part of Tibet in China in the north-east Himalayas to Cape Comorin in the south and from the Gir forest (Saurashtra) and thorn forest in the arid zone of Kachchh in the west to the moist forest of Myanmar in the eastern border of India.
Although a majority of the leopards are confined in India, small populations are also found in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and small areas of southern China adjoining Myanmar. Each of the other seven subspecies of the Asian leopard has a small population, below one thousand, in different Asian countries. After the African leopard, only the Indian leopard has a viable population.
The Indian leopard occurs up to a height of about 5,200 meters in the Himalayas where their habitat meets the lower altitude of the snow leopard. A study revealed that the distribution range of the Indian leopard reduced to 28 percent of its historical distribution range, although the big cat enjoys the highest protection level in our country as it is placed in Schedule-I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
According to an article published in the Indian Forester in January 1907, a total of 811 leopards and 1,355 tigers were officially killed in 1905 to reduce their menace. Level of killing in the preceding year (1904) was also at the same level. Thus, about 800 to 900 leopards were killed annually in the beginning of the 20th century which increased subsequently later.
It was also mentioned that leopards killed 401 human beings and 44,845 livestock in 1905. Hunting licenses were issued freely to kill wild animals, including leopards. A total of 37,720 hunting licences in 1904 and 37,833 in 1905 were issued in India. As per records, 150,000 leopards were hunted in British India during a span of 50 years (1875-1925) at an annual rate of 3,000 leopards. It was estimated that 100 years ago, India had over 10 times the present population of the tiger. By extending similar logic and studying hunting records, it can be said that the Indian forests had a high population of the leopard before the Second World War. Thereafter, they were killed in thousands, which pushed them to become near extinct. However, conservation measures have reversed the trend.
Distribution range: In a majority of the Indian States, the leopards are dispersing in new areas due to which its population is recovering. Until a few years ago, Punjab was considered to be a non-tiger State as the animal occasionally visited in the winter from the hills of Himachal Pradesh. But in recent times, the Leopards have made a come back in the lower Shivalik hills of Punjab, bordering Himachal Pradesh.
Similarly, about two and a half dozen of leopards marked their presence in the Shivalik of Haryana a decade ago. The animal dispersed from the Shivalik of Himachal Pradesh and from the Aravallis hill ranges of Rajasthan to the forests of Haryana. At present, forests in 10 districts in Shivalik and the Aravallis of Haryana have been captured by the leopards in good numbers.
At present, the Indian leopard is distributed in 29 States and one Union Territory. Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh have over two-thirds of the total leopard population of the country. In the 1990s, the leopard’s presence was recorded in 196 sanctuaries and national parks across 26 States of the country.
Since then, the number of States and protected areas has increased and expanded. As per latest reports, the animal’s presence has been registered from 384 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries across the country, although few other protected areas are seasonally or occasionally visited by the leopard.
Area of these leopard supporting national parks and wildlife sanctuaries is about 136,550 km. Of this, about 50 tiger reserves and their buffer zones in 17 States are occupied by the Tigers and five national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in Gujarat by the Asiatic lion. In the rest of the leopard supporting protected areas, the leopard is a top predator but compete with the hyena. Experts believe that though the sanctuaries and national parks accommodate a good number of the animal, a large number of them are found outside these boundaries than those within, and some are using non-forest areas, including scrublands, tea garden, ravines, sugarcane fields and another vegetation cover.
In the State of Gujarat, as per the leopard census report in 2011, about 38.2 per cent of the leopard population was counted in the protected areas, 18.0 per cent in the sugarcane field, agricultural lands, plantations and ravines, and the rest in the forest areas beyond the boundaries of the protected areas.
Leopard population in protected areas of Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Odisha were about 25.2 percent, 44.1 percent and 35.3 percent respectively. An analysis of data from 12 major leopard States reveals that about one-third of the total leopards were found in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Also, based on census reports of a few States, about 15 percent of the leopards used habitat beyond the boundaries of the forests.
Leopard’s occupancy in the major part of 14 tiger States was 173,900 km in 2014. As per the rough leopard distribution range, provided by the Chief Wildlife Wardens and wildlife experts in the States, the leopards occupy about 114,000 km in other 15 States and Union Territories. Thus, the leopards occupy over 287,900 km forest areas of the country.
Tea gardens have become a major man-leopard conflict zone because a good number of them breed and hunt in these areas. At least 5,670 km area of the hilly terrain or slopes in Nilgiri hills (Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka), Darjeeling hills, drained land of Dooars and Terai down the hills in West Bengal and moderate hills and slopes in Assam and other such lands in the North- East States, Uttarakhand and Himachal are under tea cultivation. Presence of leopard and human-leopard conflict in these tea gardens have been recorded for over 100 years. Most of these areas form contiguous leopard habitat with the adjoining forests.
Recently, maximum human-leopard conflicts were recorded in and around the sugarcane fields in some States. Sugarcane cultivation has expanded with the expansion of irrigation network. The adaptive big cat has successfully exploited the dense sugarcane crop for littering. During the last five years, the extent of sugarcane cultivation in India ranged from 44,360 Km to 50,670 km.
Leopards are frequently seen in the sugarcane fields. Majority of such dense tall crops in the four States — Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, which cover about 31.9 percent of the sugarcane cultivation area in the country — are inflicted by the leopard. The animal is also seen in the sugarcane fields in Terai belt in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
A recent paper, ‘Big Cat in Our Backyards’, published by the journal ‘Public Library of Science’, made headlines by reporting up to six resident leopards per 100 km in the sugarcane fields in Sangamner region of Maharashtra. The big cats hide in the dense cover of sugarcane crops during the day, preying on dogs, pigs, cattle and poultry in the night in the villages and towns.
When one or two leopards killed five people in Mandvi Taluka of Surat district, Gujarat in the post-monsoon and early winter in 2010, while hunting and trapping the man-eater, about two dozen leopards, including cubs, were eliminated from the sugarcane areas of the villages in three months. When a leopard killed four people in sugarcane zone in Veraval in Junagadh (Gujarat) in March 2012, a total of nine leopards were trapped and removed from the area. There are several such stories in the sugarcane belt.
The extent of forests cover with canopy density of more than 10 per cent is 683,925 sq km in 29 States and one Union Territory which support leopards. The shrublands and ravines outside the forests also support leopards. In the leopard State, about three-fourth of the forest cover is expected to be potential habitat, although present occupancy area of the leopard is lesser than the potential habitats. The analysis indicates that the leopard occupancy area in India may be in an extent of over 300,000 km, although potential habitat is high.
Writer: Hari Shanker Singh
Courtesy: The Pioneer