Now poachers go for leopards

Now poachers go for leopards

But this time it's the agile leopard that is on the radar of poachers as vigilance has tightened around the illegal trade in tiger parts across India, say wildlife experts. The leopard's skin and bones are equally in demand in the international market and wildlife conservationists say up to 500 of these big cats are killed every year for these.

"Leopards are disappearing as fast as tigers in India. In the past three years, nearly an eighth of India's leopards have fallen prey to poachers," said Jose Louis from the enforcement division of  the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), an NGO that is working for wildlife conservation in the country. "We have seized around 15 leopard skins from poachers within three months in southern Indian states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala," Louis told reporters.

He pointed out that the demand for leopard bones was higher than its skin in the international market, especially in China as bones are used to manufacture medicines. While leopard skin costs Rs 25,000 if you get it from a local poacher, it is sold in metros like Delhi for around Rs 50,000. In the international market, the price goes up to as high as Rs 100,000.

Wildlife experts and conservationists estimate that there are around 8,000 leopards in the country. Prasanna Jeet, also in the enforcement division of WTI, said Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana are the important illegal trading points of leopard bones and skins. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), another NGO working in the field, around 291 leopard deaths have occurred in the first three months this year. Of these, 74 were killed by poachers.

In 2009, as many as 290 leopards were killed, while the figure was estimated to be 157 in 2008. "The plight of leopards in India is getting worse than that of tigers. Like 'Project Tiger', a conservation programme for tigers, a dedicated conservation programme for leopards is a must," said Pradeep Banerjee, a wildlife activist. Project Tiger is a dedicated conservation programme for tigers launched by the government in 1974. It's an ongoing centrally sponsored scheme of the environment and forests ministry.

Banerjee said heavy poaching of leopards needs to be checked or else they would also face the threat of extinction. He added there is a serious need to make punishment for poachers more stringent. "The poachers should be given 10 years' imprisonment and fined at least Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million). This would act as a deterrent." He also criticised the ministry for not doing enough to check poaching of leopards.

Louis said: "Wildlife crime is not taken seriously even by the legal fraternity. Local courts are less aware of the issue. Less than two percent of the poachers are convicted a year." According to ministry officials, they have set up a Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), a body established under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, with the aim of combating organised wildlife crimes.

S.B. Negi, joint director of the bureau, told reporters: "We are still working on the data of leopard poaching incidents. We have asked the states to be vigilant. We will be taking effective steps to curb this menace." But they don't plan to start a separate conservation programme. "We have no plans to come up with a separate conservation programme for leopards," he said.

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