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Four leopards a week being killed in India for skins, experts estimate

TRAFFIC

These leopard and tiger skins, with fake mouths, were photographed for sale in Myanmar, which neighbors India.

While India has struggled to protect its declining tiger population, its leopards have been getting even less protection, or attention for that matter. A study released Friday recognized that flaw, estimating that at least four leopards are being killed each week, double the official reports, with their skins then smuggled to parts of Asia.

"Even though reports of illegal trade in leopard body parts are disturbingly frequent, the level of threat to leopards in the country has previously been unrecognized, and has fallen into our collective 'blind spot'," study co-author Rashid Raza, the India coordinator for the TRAFFIC wildlife trade monitoring network, said in a statement with the study.


At least 2,300 leopards were killed and then their body parts trafficked between 2001 and 2010, the study estimates.

Official reports of seizures account for nearly half that number, with the rest an estimate based on statistical analysis of "undetected trade" patterns by TRAFFIC, which is funded by the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The WWF said it was time to focus more efforts on leopards. They have been "overshadowed by the trade in another of the country’s national icons, the tiger," noted WWF-India President Divyabhanusinh Chavda.

Mks Pasha / TRAFFIC

Leopards are widespread across India but not abundant, with experts agreeing that their population is in serious decline.

The report cited numerous cases of leopard skins from India that were for sale in nearby Myanmar, Laos and Tibetan regions of China.

Much of the illegal trade is thought to go through the "porous" border with Nepal, the experts said.

The report noted that while no reliable estimates of leopard numbers in India exist, they are considered widespread but not abundant.

"There has been a long standing anxiety among biologists and conservationists that the leopard in India is in serious decline," the experts stated.

TRAFFIC

This leopard skin was used to make a rug.

Leopards, like tigers, do have protected status in India, but many Indians consider both animals a threat. Some rural villagers have lost livestock, or even their lives, to leopards and tigers. 

The report's authors said that conflict isn't a reason to turn a blind eye to a potential extinction.

"There is still a disproportionate emphasis on the problem that the leopard causes in comparison to the crisis that the leopard is facing," the report stated.

The plight of India's tigers is probably even worse: just 1,700 are estimated to be left in the wild, nearly half the number from a decade ago and a fraction of the 100,000 estimated a century ago. Worldwide, only 4,000 tigers are thought to be left in the wild.

But other data suggests more leopards are being killed than tigers. The nonprofit Project Tiger reports cases of leopards killed for skins far exceeded tiger poachings in each year between 1998 and 2003.

TRAFFIC and the WWF, after listing ways for India to crack down on trafficking, said a lack of action could lead leopards down that same path.

"Without an effective strategy to assess and tackle the threats posed by illegal trade," said Chavda, "the danger is that leopard numbers may decline rapidly as happened previously to the tiger."

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