The rampant poaching of leopards in the wilds of Uttarakhand is as alarming as the earlier revelation about vanishing tigers in protected areas, a development that forced the government to set up a special Tiger Task Force in 2005 for revamping the wildlife protection system. Some three dozen leopards are said to have been killed in Uttarakhand in the last few months. Elsewhere, too, leopards have been the target of animal hunters, as borne out by the recovery of 27 leopard skins from different parts of the country in the past two months. Some estimates place the total number of leopards annihilated in this period at as high as 120, with most incidents being reported from Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. It seems to be the case that the increased attention given to guarding tigers has made poachers turn their focus to the leopard.
This issue cannot be viewed in isolation from the poaching of other wild animals, whose parts too are in demand. While tiger organs are used in traditional medicines in countries like China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand, the parts of elephants, rhinoceros, Tibetan antelope (or Chiru) and several others are used for other lucrative purposes, all of them illicit. The unchecked killing of male tuskers for supplying to the unlawfully-run ivory industry has caused not only a sharp reduction in their numbers but also a distortion in their sex ratio, which creates problems when it comes to normal procreation by the species. Likewise, the population of Chiru, killed for the fibre that goes into shahtoosh shawls, has dropped drastically in the Ladakh region. Rhinos are being targeted for their horns, valued because of the mythical properties attributed to them. This apart, about 250 species of birds are being trapped in the wilds for illegal trade, pushing many rare species towards extinction.
One point that has become fairly obvious by now is that most poachers are a part of organised gangs that operate internationally. There is also reason to believe that the growing contacts and linkages between these gangs and wildlife traders in India has added to the problem. Unfortunately, the country’s legal framework for wildlife protection as well as the machinery for its enforcement has proved itself incapable of coping with these challenges, or indeed of breaking the nexus that has been established. Though there are two broad pieces of legislation — the Indian Forest Act, 1927, and the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, amended in 2003 — they are both outmoded and far too weak. The punishment and penalty provided under these laws could be a deterrent — 3 to 7 years imprisonment, and a minimum Rs 10,000 fine — but the problem continues to grow. In part, that is because governments have not taken any of the other action required. Game sanctuaries are under-guarded (many posts of guards are said to be lying vacant, unfilled), and the guards who are put on duty are under-equipped, under-armed, and in all respects are outmatched by the poachers.
What needs to be realised is that any distortion of the natural wildlife balance, especially the disappearance of predatory animals like tigers and leopards, can be ruinous for the ecology of an entire region. Such a wildlife catastrophe would lead to a spurt in the population of herbivores which, in turn, would speed up the dreadful process of denuding the soil of its vegetative cover. Among the other consequences would be increased silting of rivers and more frequent floods. The solutions for preventing all this are really quite simple: put more feet on the ground, give them the best equipment, improve intelligence gathering in order to nab poachers, and then insist that the people assigned to this important task do their job.