Snapshot – Poaching and coexistence challenges major threats to the leopard

Leopard Skin, more value from a dead animal or on a living one? A leopard we know as “The Boss”, he lives at Bardiya National Park, Nepal. At the moment the skin of the leopard is valued more highly by those removing from the great cat compared to conservation efforts to protect it.

The leopard, found in over 60 countries but globally declining…

This snapshot brings key issues facing big cats and in particular, the leopard.

As we usher in the lunar Year of the Tiger, there’s reason for hope. “Since tiger met man, the population has been in decline,” says Stuart Chapman, leader of WWF’s Tigers Alive initiative. “Until a moment about five years ago, when the population stabilized and began increasing.”

The words above are incredibly important as we consider the effort made to turn the situation around for the tiger. Much has been written about the plight of this iconic animal and while there is still much to be done to secure the future for the tiger, the rationale, the belief and the learnings of the last twelve years since the St Petersburg Tiger Summit in 2010 do give reason for optimism. The tiger as an umbrella species is in itself the most valuable asset in protecting highly important ecosystems.

We believe the same momentum shift can happen for the leopard. Using the “protect one, protect all” philosophy attached to tiger conservation, this approach used for leopard through its much more vast range can bring massive ecological benefits especially when connected to the aim of thirty percent of the planet being listed as protected area by 2030.

However at the moment the trajectory for the leopard is contrary to that thinking. The species is rapidly declining across its global range which at the moment includes existence in just over 60 countries. Leopards have disappeared from approximately 40% of their historic African territory and more than 50% of their historic range in Asia. ​Leopards are already extinct in Hong Kong, Jordan, Korea, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Singapore, Syrian Arab Republic, Togo, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. The presence of leopards in six more nations is highly uncertain: Iraq, Korea, Kazakhstan, Lesotho, Lebanon, and Mauritania.

A claimed increase in population in India can be countered by unreliable initial counts. That being said, there could be as many as 20,000 leopards across India and Nepal (sub species panthera pardus fusca). While that number may seem high it does not factor in local extinction or the fatality rates caused by a number of factors including poaching. This is one of the key issues on which we base Snapshot.

The figures below are seizure and poaching incidents known this century across India and Nepal, our two main countries of engagement. Each unit represents a leopard killed.

2000 – 2019 Across India/Nepal Total 4440

2020 – 2021 Across India/Nepal Total 411

Average per year across India/Nepal 200+ since 2000

Using 4x rule 800 leopards killed in India/Nepal annually

Based on these rates the seizure/poaching incidents will pass the 5000 mark in 2022. The 4x rule is one used by some specialists however there are others who use higher multiplication. When applied it gives a poaching mortality figure of 20,000 this century. The bottom line is that seizure/poaching incident statistics are purely indicative of a much higher figure which can never be fully understood. These figures have been extracted from our own databases as well as records kept by government and non-government organizations. This Snapshot is designed to give known extent of the problem and will be expanded upon in a publication in time for the 2022 Tiger Summit preview meeting in
India in June.

As mentioned, the figure of 800 leopards killed across India/Nepal annually may be conservative. For this Snapshot we have not factored in other South Asian countries Pakistan and Sri Lanka, both of which have known high incident rates. For the purpose of this Snapshot if we use the 800 figure and the population figure of 20,000 the trajectory of population decrease is likely especially when allowing that overall mortality rates also include natural causes, roadkill and retaliation kills where the body parts do not enter the illegal market. The leopard is a highly adaptive, resilient animal but history has shown no big cat species is immune to extinction and just as importantly, regional extinction and the associated ecological impacts. As a territorial species, its removal from any area by unnatural causes leads to ecological imbalance as well as the risk of other leopards (or other top predators) moving into unknown territory and becoming involved in human-wildlife conflict situations. A negative impact cycle can thus result.

The image is from a leopard skin and bone seizure incident including arrests in October 2021 in Banke District in western Nepal. The area is a known trafficking hotspot involving wildlife body parts. Aside from targeted poaching and leopards caught in snares intended for bushmeat there are also body parts transported from India through established networks with China the usual destination. Other hotspots through India/Nepal include Uttarakhand and Odisha while Kathmandu is a well established trafficking hub. Our files include hundreds of images from cases throughout the Snapshot region. As described in the video below snares and poisoning are two of the main methods used to kill big cats in the region.

It is widely written that China is the principle destination for leopard body parts especially skins used for decorative and investment purposes as well as bones used for traditional medicine. The latter has domestic market legality loopholes as disclosed by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) which we will go into greater detail in the September report. Canines/teeth and claws (sometimes called nails) have different uses ranging from decorative/trinket type use and in the case of claws, black magic. Increased findings that body parts demand is not limited to China by any means and that country of origin has demand. Leopard meat has been knowingly consumed in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well as in south east Asia including the high profile case in Malaysia where a prominent businessman was eventually convicted.

Leopards are legally and illegally hunted as trophies in several African states where there are also more traditional poaching for market incidents. Investigations of online trafficking in recent years have also thrown up anomalies suggesting a far greater trade in leopard body parts in Europe than was initially known. Leopard body parts have even been seized in Australia and New Zealand while the well known big cat illegal market in the US has only has research and investigation focus on tiger and jaguar at this stage.

The Challenges of Coexistence

This is a very brief overview giving only some of the elements regarding the plight of the leopard. In late May we’re adding a new section to Snapshot regarding the challenges brought about by human – leopard conflict which can link to the wildlife crime aspect in certain circumstances. Leading up to the June report this website will expand as a resource regarding leopard information and issues and we will explain further our partnerships and collaborations as well as gaining input from leading experts. Our own interventions in conjunction with partners will be explained as appropriate and many of you reading this will be aware of our work up to this point. For further information on one of our key solutions please go to LeopardEye.

For now we just ask that you reflect on what you have just read, the sheer scale of killing of the leopard, an animal already challenged by habitat destruction and natural prey reduction, is of great concern. Having evolved over millions of years as one of nature’s keystone species, it is imperative the leopard be given much greater conservation emphasis. Mission Leopard is very much about that goal and throughout 2022 we’ll explain how we are doing that and how you can be involved.