KOLKATA, India - India's leopards are under threat, with increasing numbers of the wild cats being poached for their body parts and villagers killing them for straying into human settlements, experts said.
With tiger populations dwindling in recent years as a result of poaching, wildlife officials say hunters have increasingly set their sights on leopards, killing them for their skins as well as bones, claws and penises for use in traditional Asian medicines.
Depletion of their habitat has also threatened the leopards, forcing them to stray into human settlements -- attacking people and cattle -- and often getting killed in return.
"Leopards were always in danger due to a shrinking habitat, but now with poachers after them there is an immediate need for conservation of the animals," said Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
Despite being an endangered and protected species, at least 228 leopards have been killed since January 2006, Wright said, 68 of which had been killed this year alone.
India had about 7,300 leopards in the wild according to a 1997 census, but conservationists say the number is now likely to be much lower.
Since July last year, police have seized dozens of leopard skins and body parts near India's northeastern border with Bhutan.
"We have found that leopard skins, claws and penises were in great demand across South Asia and this has its own market worth thousands of rupees," said B.D. Sarkar, a senior police officer.
"A leopard skin is sold for 100,000 rupees (US$2,500) outside India."
Development pressures and encroachment into forest areas have also brought humans and the wild cats into conflict, and media reports have shown villagers brutally killing the animals.
In January, local television footage showed a group of people beating a leopard with logs as it lay on the ground after apparently being cornered in the western city of Nasik. It later died of its injuries.
Story by Bappa Majumdar
Story Date: 31/7/2007