Leopard conservation – a neglected issue

Leopard are one of the most neglected and persecuted big wild cat species across the Middle East, Central Asia, Eurasia, China, South and SE Asia that deserves serious transcontinental conservation initiative and support.

Leopard conservation - a neglected issue

The WWF 2018 big wild cat poster has clearly identified that various subspecies of leopards distributed across the continents of Asia and Africa are showing an alarming decline in their population numbers; and some subspecies are believed to have already gone extinct across the sub Saharan and North African region.

As well around the Middle East due to extensive loss of leopard habitats, indiscriminate poaching and repeated conflicts with humans encroaching on premier leopard habitats, rail and/or highway accidents and acute low of major leopard prey species in the ecosystems in which they barely survive.

The Asiatic leopard subspecies are mostly data deficient. Lack of comprehensive surveys does not provide conservators with ground level information regarding the proper distribution of different leopard subspecies across Asia. No proper geographic distribution, range overlaps or credible population dynamics data are easily available or accessible for review and analysis. Even where the data is available their credibility has been questioned from various quarters.

The South Asian leopard distributed across India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh is most possibly the largest subspecies of Asiatic leopards based on the strength of their numbers and their widespread distribution across vast stretches of South Asia.

Unless serious measures are taken with implementation at the ground level; the various Asiatic subspecies of leopards namely: Arabian, Persian, Amur, Indian (South Asian), Indo Chinese, Javan and Sri Lankan leopards are becoming increasingly vulnerable to anthropogenic exploitation, greed, negligence, unwanted interference and fear.

Once abundant across the subcontinent, today leopards across South Asia are facing strong competition for their survival from the human inhabitants. Unplanned infrastructural development in forested areas that served as important leopard habitats has encroached both legally and illegally. As consequence leopards are being killed in road and/or railway accidents in significant numbers.

Tea, coffee, fruit orchards have been allowed to expand into forested belts resulting in massive habitat loss as well as habitat fragmentation for the species impacting their regular movement, hunting and breeding cycles.

Often to avoid confrontations with other leopards pregnant female leopards move into adjacent commercial cash crop gardens and plantations for giving birth and raising their young’s making both the animal as well as humans vulnerable to unprovoked attacks and serious injuries and even deaths.

Lack of suitable prey base as well as overcrowding in small patches of forests are pushing the animal towards adjacent villages, towns, municipalities and illegal human settlements both within and adjacent forest lands in search of food.

The local forest departments lack enough ground personnel to handle such serious conditions, and often the majestic animal is brutally and mercilessly killed or exterminated by unruly mobs with both police and forest guards, other government and non-government staff and officials standing helplessly as bystanders with no action taken against anyone.

A mega biodiverse country like India represents habitats for five unique large wild cats, namely the tiger, lion, leopard, snow leopard and clouded leopard. Of these, clouded leopards are most data deficient species with ranges extending across the Eastern Himalayas into the North East into Adjoining Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Another major big cat species from the subcontinent, the cheetah became extinct in 1951 due to over hunting.  Leopards are among the most commonly seen among big wild cats; and have been unfortunately involved in numerous human-animal conflicts over the past two decades along the length and breadth of the nation.

The biggest factor contributing towards decimation of leopards in India is habitat destruction, illegal human encroachments inside leopard habitats, lack of suitable prey base for leopards in their original forest habitats, overcrowding, human-animal conflicts, organized poaching and poisoning of the animals.

However, it is also important to mention that India is the first and the only country in the world that has initiated the leopard census recently. Lack of education and awareness together with the lack of environmental sensibility and overburdened and highly stretched archaic.

Managed forest department are responsible for the slow and sad demise of Indian leopards. Unless comprehensive conservation policy and strategy is developed and implemented at the ground level, Indian leopards are looking towards a bleak dark future in the next three decades.

Furthermore, a thriving wildlife trade and trafficking syndicate in most countries is further contributing towards slow but certain decimation of this majestic big wild cat species. While other animals such as tiger, lion, snow leopard, rhinos, elephants, primates and birds are being given due attention. No serious attempts are visible across Africa as well as Asia in successful attempts in conserving this top big wild cat predator.

Possibly due to the fact that leopards are more easily seen or spotted by people as a consequence of frequent human-leopard conflicts; both stakeholders may have lost their fear, inhibition and need for mutual trust and respect and have transformed into arch rivals or enemies of one another.

A section of local ground level politicians, forest staff and administration as well as a section of media have further demonized this majestic bug cat to such a negative extent; that some people look at leopards as a crisis to human existence and for them the only solution is to kill and exterminate the helpless animal without any attempt to think about cohabitation.

Lack of any consideration for nature represented by the majestic forests, wildlife and rich biodiversity is an important factor working behind anti-wildlife feeling and sentiments among different communities who look at and portray leopards as their enemy only. Unless this attitude is changed or corrected successful leopard conservation is highly challenging.

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