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What the 2022 Status of Leopards in India report suggests about the big cat’s population estimates

Context- The ‘Status of Leopards in India, 2022’ report, which was published by the Union Environment Ministry on February 29, indicates that the leopard population in India has risen to an estimated 13,874, a significant increase from the 12,852 recorded in 2018.

A marginal increase in overall leopard population

  • Indian leopards, apex predators found across various forested habitats in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and parts of Pakistan, play a vital role in maintaining ecosystem balance. The leopard population is highest in Central India and the Eastern Ghats (8,820), followed by the Western Ghats (3,596), and the Shivalik Hills and Gangetic Plains (1,109).
  • Among states, Madhya Pradesh has the most leopards (3,907), followed by Maharashtra (1,985), Karnataka (1,879), and Tamil Nadu (1,070). Despite a marginal increase in the leopard population, maintaining the status quo is considered satisfactory due to the threat of poaching.

Decrease in population in some regions

  • Despite the overall increase in India’s leopard population, some regions and states have reported a decline. The Shivalik Hills and Gangetic Plains saw a 3.4% annual decrease, with numbers falling from 1,253 in 2018 to 1,109 in 2022.
  • States including Odisha, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, and Goa also reported population declines. One possible reason for this is the increase in tiger populations, particularly in areas like the Ramnagar Forest Division in Uttarakhand. Other contributing factors include poaching, habitat loss, and road accidents.

Benefits from tiger conservation efforts

  • While an increase in the tiger population can negatively affect leopards and other lower-level predators by reducing their habitat and resources, tiger conservation efforts have also inadvertently aided in the growth of leopard populations.
  • This is particularly evident in the Central India and Eastern Ghats landscape, which has the largest leopard population, largely due to protective measures implemented for tiger conservation.
  • Despite tigers exerting regulatory pressure on leopards, leopard densities are higher in Tiger Reserves compared to outside Protected Areas.
  • Aseem Shrivastava, Madhya Pradesh’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), stated that conserving tigers, an umbrella species, also conserves co-predators, vegetation, and the entire habitat.
  • He added that good prey base management in the state has helped increase its leopard population.

Leopard-human conflict remains a worry

  • Leopards’ adaptability allows them to thrive in various habitats, including agro-pastoral areas, plantations, and near human settlements, leading to increased leopard-human conflict. About 65% of the leopard population in the Shivalik region lives outside protected areas, contributing to 30% of wildlife-caused human deaths and injuries in Uttarakhand over the last five years.
  • Maharashtra and Karnataka have reported the highest number of fatal attacks and human-leopard encounters, respectively, largely due to habitat loss from mining and other human activities.
  • Kerala reported 547 incidents of human-leopard conflict from 2013 to 2019, including 173 livestock deaths or injuries. In Uttar Pradesh, most attacks occur in areas less than 10 km wide, with 38% of conflicts occurring inside or adjacent to homes, 40% in agricultural fields, and 11% on farmlands.
  • In Tamil Nadu, leopards frequently occupy coffee-tea estates and other commercial plantations surrounded by forests, as land near forest edges is cheaper and often purchased by plantation workers for housing.

Conclusion- In conclusion, the leopard population in India presents a complex picture. While there has been an overall increase in numbers, certain regions and states have reported a decline. Factors such as increased tiger populations, habitat loss due to human activities, and leopard-human conflict contribute to these dynamics.

Leopards’ adaptability allows them to thrive in various habitats, but this also leads to increased conflicts with humans. Conservation efforts aimed at umbrella species like tigers have inadvertently aided in the growth of leopard populations. However, the escalating human-leopard conflict underscores the need for comprehensive strategies that balance conservation efforts with the realities of human-wildlife coexistence.

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