The findings of India’s first ever leopard count have made happy headlines. The numbers, however, deserve closer scrutiny.
The census put the total leopard population of the country at 12,000-14,-000. It did not, however, account for 12,000-14,000 leopards in the country. Neither did it survey the entire country. It was restricted to the tiger states, except West Bengal and the North-East states. Non-tiger states — such as Himachal, Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana or Punjab — were not covered. Even within the tiger states, the census left out areas — north-west Rajasthan, for example — where chances of spotting tigers were remote. After all, these findings on leopards were an offshoot of the all-important tiger census.
In fact, the happy range of 12-14,000 leopards for all of India in the national census is only a guess-estimate derived from a figure of 7,910 leopards present in and around tiger forests of 13 states. This figure of 7,910 itself is an extrapolation from 1,647 individual leopards that were actually photographed — some, multiple times — by camera traps set up to count tigers.
The complex science of extrapolation used by the Wildlife Institute of India has never been adequately peer reviewed or even made fully public. While we should trust the researchers to arrive at an estimate of 7,910 — from 1,647 — for the entire sampled landscapes, it is anybody’s guess how the national range of 12,000-14,000 was derived since it includes vast, diverse landscapes that were not sampled at all. For all we know, the real leopard count could be significantly higher. Or lower.
Take Uttarakhand, for example. The present ‘national census’ estimates 703 leopards in the tiger forests of the state. The state forest department consistently counted more than 2,000 leopards for the entire state in 2003, 2005 and 2008. Since the present census did not cover the high altitude non-tiger areas, we may smugly assume that more than double the number present in lower forests are lurking somewhere up there to make up for the 2008 count.
Or should we keep our fingers crossed and wait for the next Uttarakhand census?
Forget 12,000-14,000, is the number 7,910 itself reassuring? What it tells us is that for every tiger, there are approximately four leopards present in and around our tiger forests. However, according to the CBI’s wildlife crime cell, seizure reports indicate that for every tiger skin, at least seven leopard pelts are smuggled out. So what should we make of that?
2003 2005 2008 Now
2092 2105 2335 703*