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Leopard poaching worse than expected in India: four killed each week, experts estimate (VIDEO)


A leopard attacks a forest guard at Prakash Nagar on the outskirts of Siliguri in West Bengal, India on July 19, 2011. Forest officials made several attempts to tranquilize the full-grown leopard after it attacked six villagers.


Diptendu Dutta

It's rough to be leopard in India these days: a new report released by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC has found that an average of four leopards are slaughtered each week in the subcontinent, in killings that bear distressing parallels to the decimation of tigers.

The TRAFFIC study into the leopard trade, entitled "Iluminating the Blind Spot," compiled newspaper reports of the seizure of leopard parts in India, finding a total of 420 illegal seizures from 2001 to 2010, in 21 out of India's 35 territories. 88 percent of the seizures were of leopard's remarkable, spotty pelts.

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Most damningly, the researchers estimated that an average of four leopards have been killed weekly in India over the past 10 years.

A 2011 census cited by AFP found that the Indian leopard population stands at 1,150—not nearly enough to support such a robust harvest.

Delhi was marked as the most important illegal hub for leopard parts, with the majority of seizures carried out in the capital. As tigers become more rare, illegal traffickers are increasingly turning to the attractive pelts (and parts) of India's other charismatic big cat.

So how do we save the leopard? TRAFFIC suggests better reporting into the illegal leopard trade (similar to efforts that are already carried out with tigers), the strengthening of wildlife-proteciton laws, and more scientific studies on the enigimatic cats behavior.

Within the study, TRAFFIC called the leopard "one of the most charismatic large animals in the world," adding that despite this iconic status, "the leopard remains one of the least studied of our big cats."

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"Any increase in external market demand could easily lead to a decimation of leopard numbers in India," Ravi Singh of the World Wide Fund for Nature or WWF told the BBC. The WWF helped with TRAFFIC's study. 

"The level of threat to leopards in the country has previously been unrecognised, and has fallen into our collective 'blind spot'," said Dr Rashid Raza, the lead author of the study.

Poaching isn't the leopard's only problem in modern-day India.

As the human population expands and forests are destroyed, many leopards find themselves pushed into urban areas and into direct conflict with people—and some realize that feeding off wild dogs, urban monkeys, and even the occasional human is an easier life than foraging in the jungle.