Stealing Beauty

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There is a royalty even among big cats: the lion is king of the jungle, and the tiger its exalted prince. The stealthy and cunning leopard ranks third--a handsome knave. India's vast game parks are blessed with all three feline species. But while the lion and the tiger are the focus of special conservation efforts due to their vastly reduced numbers, it is the leopard that may now face the greatest threat from poachers and illegal wildlife traders. Since tigers are becoming rare, India's illegal traders are shifting their attention to leopards, says John Sellar, chief of the enforcement unit of the United Nation's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (cites). Conservationists warn that at the present rate of attrition, with an estimated 1,000 poaching deaths every year, leopards could disappear from India by the end of the decade. The danger was brought home late last year when sales-tax inspectors stopped and searched a truck in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. They stumbled upon packages containing neatly folded leopard skins. Wildlife department officials were called in, and a small-town tannery was raided by police on Jan. 12. The booty from the two hauls added up to a jungle massacre--120 leopard skins, 18,000 leopard claws (extracted from an estimated 1,000 dead cats), a leopard penis, seven tiger skins, 132 tiger claws (from more than 30 cats) and 175 kg of leopard, tiger and other animal bones. Several skins were numbered and signed Tsering, the trade name of a major dealer who, officials suspect, was planning to smuggle them out of India via Nepal and Tibet.
Until now, Indian conservationists have not been overly concerned about the fate of the leopard, since it is by far the most resilient and adaptable of the big cats. Solitary and crafty animals, leopards are found throughout the subcontinent, surviving alongside man in a variety of challenging habitats, from scrubland to degraded forest. They can hunt and eat virtually anything. Unfortunately, India's leopards, regarded by the legendary hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett as the most beautiful and the most graceful of all the animals in our jungles, are also the least researched by naturalists. Nobody is quite sure how many leopards live in the wild in India: conservationists say the number could well be lower than the oft-quoted estimate of 10,000. Now the leopard is threatened by exactly the same predators as the tiger--traditional medicine practitioners in China, Japan and other East Asian countries. Leopard parts can easily be mistaken for a tiger's, and are thus greatly valued by apothecaries marketing tiger-based medicines. Despite the prohibition on the sale of tiger parts (Japan, the last major Asian nation to fall in line, will enforce the ban from April 1), demand for such cures continues to thrive, with India as the world's largest supplier. The Wildlife Protection Society of India has documented the killing of 61 tigers and 188 leopards since January last year. The actual number is estimated to be at least seven times higher, since a majority of wildlife crimes go unreported (the government doesn't even maintain national statistics on poaching).

Leopards are also falling victim to Asia's fashion-conscious new-rich. Fur is back in vogue, and leopard skins are in demand despite a ban on their commercial use. The leopard's strikingly beautiful coat lends itself well to women's jackets, handbags and shoes. After tanning, tiger skin isn't any use except as a rug, says conservationist Ashok Kumar. But leopard skin becomes similar to factory-produced cloth and falls very well. This sudden demand is resulting in a carnage of India's leopards.

None of the leopard skins recovered in Uttar Pradesh bore bullet marks, since poachers are almost always villagers who poison the animals with pesticide. Sometimes the killings are retaliation for leopard attacks on livestock or humans. But many more are ordered by city-based criminals. And while the activities of the wildlife mafia extend across several states, New Delhi has yet to come up with an effective defense. What India lacks is a national wildlife crime unit to fight poaching and illegal trade, says Willem Wijnstekers, a U.N. official responsible for checking the estimated $6 billion international trade in endangered species. Often, there's a reluctance even to face up to the fact that the problem exists.

The leopard is especially vulnerable to official apathy. Every year, India spends around $70 million on wildlife preservation. Nearly $6.5 million is devoted to projects aimed at saving lions, tigers and elephants. But the overlooked leopards are not the target of any special programs, making them relatively easy prey. What is becoming absolutely certain is that they will vanish before the tiger does, warns tiger expert Valmik Thapar. The killing game will stop only if there is proper wildlife governance. The latest haul of leopard skins, bones and claws has stunned conservationists, and New Delhi is at last considering setting up a rapid action force to fight wildlife crimes. For the leopard, such efforts can come none too soon.