New Trend in Wildlife Crime: Poachers Target Indian Leopards

By Devinder Sharma

NEW DELHI, India, January 28, 2000 (ENS) - Indian wildlife officials seized 18,000 leopard claws last week in the largest wildlife parts seizure in many years. They say the seizure points to a new trend in wildlife crime - leopards as targets.

Since so few tigers are left in the wild, leopards are coming under increasing attack by the poachers and wildlife traders in India. Conservationists estimate that about 10,000 leopards in India remain in the wild.

For over a year, there has been a noticeable increase in the killing of leopards. But the massive haul of leopard parts and skins last week shocked conservationists and wildlife authorities.

Wildlife officials from the northwestern state of Uttar Pradesh have seized 18,000 leopard claws, 132 tiger claws, 70 leopard skins, four tiger skins and 220 black buck skins from Khaga, in Fatehpuri district, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Allahabad city.


At the Khaga Police station, Indian wildlife officials display confiscated tiger and leopard skins. (Photos courtesy TRAFFIC-India)
This seizure follows another confiscation on December 19 from Ghaziabad, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of New Delhi, in which 50 leopard skins were seized.

The emerging trend to hunt leopards is alarming, says Manoj Mishra, director of TRAFFIC-India, "The seizure of 18,000 claws means that 1,000 leopards were killed," he said.

Each big cat has 18 claws, five each on the hind foot and four on each front foot.

"This seizure points to the biggest wildlife crime witnessed in the recent past. After all, a thousand leopards killed is enough of a cause for a worldwide concern for protecting the animal," said Mishra.

Leopards are less protected than tigers as they often move out of the sanctuaries in search of food. In the hills of Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in the lower Himalayas, leopards have been known to lift farm cattle, inviting the wrath of the villagers and tribal people living on the periphery of the forests.

Since the livestock of the villagers is sometimes killed by these carnivores, the villagers feel justified in poisoning the leopards.

Also, reports of increased poaching are pouring in from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

"We are suspecting that these animals too have been poisoned because there are no knife marks on the skin," says R.L. Singh, chief conservator of forests, Uttar Pradesh. Since the animals always return to finish their prey, it is easy for the villagers to poison the big cats.


A few of the 18,000 leopard claws seized by Indian wildlife authorities
Singh and his team of officials have arrested four people, all engaged in the tannery business. Singh believes that there is a definite connection between the two seizures within a month, and he sees a clear pattern of trafficking.

The skins are brought to smaller towns like Khaga where they are treated. Then the skins are marketed in New Delhi for shipment to other parts of the world.

Ranjit Talwar, coordinator of the Tiger Conservation Programme of WWF-India, says, "The leopard is certainly faced with a greater threat. The difference in the numbers of tiger and leopard parts and products seized in the recent past is itself colossal."

For every one tiger at least 25 leopards are killed, Talwar estimates. He explains that the leopard bones and other parts are being sold by wildlife traders as a substitute for the tiger products.

Members of some communities wear leopard claws around their necks as they believe the claws ward off evil and bring good luck and fortune.

The recent shift by the illicit wildlife trade from tigers to leopards indicates how ineffective the entire wildlife conservation program has been. So far, the focus has remained on tigers, rhinos and elephants.

Now, with the largest population of leopards in the world, Indian conservationists and wildlife officials are beginning to think about stepping up protection for leopards.