A study under review has found that leopard population in India has dropped by almost 70-80% in the last century, thanks to poaching and loss of habitat.

Increasing cases of human-leopard conflicts had stoked speculations of a rise in numbers of the cat.

Conducted over four years by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), the study was based on genetic data, prey range and habitat survey.

Talking to Times of India, Samrat Mondal of WII said, "The population estimation of leopards has been done in different parts of the country but no cumulative data is available. We collected molecular data from fecal samples of leopards, and took into account depletion of their habitat as well as prey range over the past 100-odd years. When we analyzed the data, we found an almost 70-80 % decrease in the prevalence of leopards."

With no reliable data available on their numbers, protection of the species has largely been neglected resulting in the leopard making it to the top of the poachers' list.

Around 4,000 body parts and bones of leopards were recovered in the period 1994-2013 compared to 1,000 body parts of tigers, said Mondal.

Besides poaching, rising instances of conflict with humans are also impacting the leopard. A Michigan State University had concluded that as tiger populations grow, the leopards are moving out to avoid the big cats and this move is bringing them into closer conflicts with humans.

Leopards losing out

These studies have implications in the light of the Global Tiger Recovery Program, which is committed to doubling the worldwide tiger population by 2022. Protection of species like the leopard cannot be neglected.

True, studies have shown that Panthera pardus, the leopard, adapts quickly to change of prey and moves out of traditional hunting grounds.

A recent international study conducted in India showed that leopards in human areas are not always 'stray' or 'conflict' animals but residents, who have in many cases developed a taste for the domestic dog and cat.

In India, the shift closer to human habitations has definitely not fared well for the leopard in India. Instances of the animal being trapped and lynched have become common.

The Indian tiger census announced earlier in the year had noted a whopping 30% rise in tiger numbers, but a subsequent Oxford-led study had questioned the double-sampling methodology used in the survey.

Scientists from the University of Oxford, Indian Statistical Institute and WCS had noted the pitfalls of the index-calibration approach where a small 10% uncertainty in detection rates compromises results in a big way.

In the case of the leopard, there is no established national database, making it easier prey.