NEW DELHI: At least 21 more leopards lost their lives in the first half of March, taking the toll to 127 this year, according to the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).
The WPSI said the leopard deaths between March 1 and 15 reported from different parts of the country included a total 12 cases of "seizure and poaching". Nine other cases were classified as "mortality".
Mortality is a category when a leopard or tiger is found dead due to diseases or unknown causes, shot by forest department or police, killed by villagers, killed in road or train accident, killed in rescue operation or during treatment, infighting, accidental electrocution.
Earlier, IANS reported that as many as 106 leopards died in the first two months of 2018 in forests across the country -- a number that conservationists and officials said was "alarmingly high".
"The last cases were reported in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. Two leopard skins were seized from smugglers by Special Task Forces on March 15," Tito Jopseph, programme manager at WPSI, told IANS.
According to official records, a total of 431 leopards died in 2017. These included 159 incidents of poaching. Some 450 big cats died in 2016 and 127 of them were found poached.
Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan had on March 9 informed the Parliament that his ministry was aware of the deaths and that the matter was being dealt with, with the concerned states.
Leopards have been targeted by poachers for their expensive hides and other body parts. However, habitat loss, especially due to farming, has posed a new threat to them.
According to experts involved in tracking illegal wildlife trade, an animal skin changes a lot of hands before it reaches a possible market in China where it can fetch around Rs 50 lakh -- sometimes even higher than that.
According to the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India, there are at least 9,000 leopards across 17 states.
However, the actual leopard population is unknown as no assessment is done in states like Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir where incidents of leopard sighting are random.
The Indian leopard is listed as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List. It is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.