Union minister for environment, forests and climate change Prakash Javadekar has declared the findings of the leopard census, pegging the population of the big cat in the country at 12,852. Releasing the ‘Status of Leopards in India, 2018’ report on December 21, Javadekar said that leopard numbers had recorded an over 60 per cent increase over the last census, for which data was collected in 2014 alongside the tiger census. The previous census had put India’s leopard population (surveyed areas, largely minus the Northeast) at 7,910. “The increase in the population of tigers, lions and leopards over the past few years is a testimony to the fledgling wildlife and biodiversity,” Javadekar tweeted.
So what does the jump in leopard numbers suggest in terms of conservation? The conventionally held theory among wildlife experts on the population of leopards and tigers in the same forests is that any increase in tiger numbers should be accompanied by a decrease in the leopard population since both compete with each other for territory and prey. However, this is not the case with the 2018 findings as there has been an increase in both the population of tigers and leopards.
Madhya Pradesh has emerged as the top leopard-bearing state, with the big cat population at 3,421, followed by Karnataka (1,783) and Maharashtra (1,690). Incidentally, MP has the highest tiger numbers in the country (526) as per the tiger census findings announced in 2019. Karnataka, the state with the second highest leopard population, has the second highest tiger population (524), as reported in the census in 2019.
Not all conservationists believe in the conventional theory about tiger-leopard populations. “My experience in the Panna National Park suggests that when protection measures are improved, all species benefit. The leopard versus tiger theory isn’t true,” says R. Sriniwas Murthy, retired IFS officer and former director of Panna National Park.
There are others too who do not subscribe to the argument about tiger and leopard populations being inversely proportional in a given habitat. But also find the leopard census figures problematic. “There is no ecological separation between tigers and leopards and there is no reason to believe that an increase in tiger numbers will correspond with a decline in leopard numbers,” says conservation biologist Raghu Chundawat. About the leopard census findings, he says: “Data is only a means to arrive at the truth. A near 90 per cent jump claimed in leopard numbers in MP seems implausible as populations are known to increase by around 10 per cent each year. So, maybe, the methodology needs to be questioned or perhaps the previous methodology was wrong.”
So while the government is celebrating the numbers as a sign of success of its conservation policies, what really is the truth? Perhaps the answer lies in the census operation. The leopard census and the tiger census have been held in the same area. While the leopard vs tiger theory may not be true in a national park or sanctuary, where added protection may be the cause of increase in tiger and leopard populations, leopard numbers increasing in degraded forests, where protection measures aren’t very strong, could correspond with a decline in tiger population. Leopards are known to be survivors, often living close to human habitations and preying on dogs and livestock.
For the leopard census, camera traps were placed at 26,838 locations across 141 sites. A total of 5,240 adult individual leopards were captured by these cameras. Out of a total 10,602 surveyed grids in India, leopard presence was recorded in 3,475 grids, as per the report.
The census report also states that there have been increasing instances of man-animal conflicts involving leopards. “The forests of central Indian landscape harbour the largest population of leopards in its fragmented forest patches. While genetic data and population data suggest that the leopard population across is continuous, there is an increasing need for corridor connectivity and improvement of habitat to reduce interface with humans, thereby reducing the chances of conflict,” the report states.
States with significant numbers of the big cat
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