Trafficking of leopard body parts still a major problem

Snapshot 2023 is being presented in two phases. For the month of February, as we did with last year’s Snapshot, we are highlighting at the front page here at Mission Leopard. Phase 2 will be presented in mid 2023 following the Global Leopard Conference and progress in current investigations. In last year’s Snapshot we brought forward major issues facing the leopard, you can link to Snapshot 2022 HERE.

Phase 1 brings updates as well as looking at the questions of why leopard body parts are trafficked and who is involved in the killing and trading of leopards.

Firstly let’s look at the figures before going into the drivers. As stated in Snapshot 2022, sadly our prediction last year that the figure of 5000 would be surpassed came true.

5031 leopards killed according to seizure and poaching incident data across India/Nepal in the years 2000 to 2022

The recently ended Lunar Year of the Tiger was another bad year for the leopard across India/Nepal. Based on seizure records for 2022 (currently being analyzed) the volume of trade has remained constant with the average of 150 to 200 leopards killed in poaching incidents based on seized parts being maintained as through this century. However this figure is only an indication of scale as undetected incidents are difficult to estimate in number with different agencies stating multiplication of between 4x to 10x the fatalities based on seizure figures. Further analysis to understand overall volume of trade according to seizure records and other factors is currently being undergone by WildTiger.

So just why are leopard body parts trafficked?

In the main the body parts of leopards are sold illegally in the following categories:

Skins (often referred to hides or pelts in reporting)

Canines (teeth in general)

Claws

Bones

These four categories also apply to the trade in other large wild cat species body parts i.e. tigers, lions, jaguars, snow leopards and clouded leopards.

Skins are the most seized category based on data analyzed from various sources. However this does not mean that the other categories are less traded, it perhaps implies that detection for those parts is more difficult. In the main the trade in skins is based on the market demand as luxury items. The display of leopard and other big cat skins is used by buyers to show wealth and power. There is evidence of a feel good factor related to masculinity when in possession of leopard skins but the popularity of leopard print as fashion also adds to the overall desire of ownership. In some cases leopard skins are still used as traditional costumes and displays in festivals and religious ceremonies (in some African States but also has been observed in Nepal and Tibet) although this has been offset by efforts by conservationists to encourage the use of artificial leopard skins.

Leopard skins have been seized globally with China historically the number one market although this is complex in understanding. With India, Nepal, Myanmar and Vietnam all key transit points based on large seizures of leopard skins en route to China plus seizures within the country itself there is some thought to China being a selling point hub for international buyers. Local demand in the high population country with a long and strong history of traditional medicine is proven however although there is no evidence of medicinal use for skins. Status and showing wealth are the key drivers of buyers but considerable weight is being given to leopard and big cat skins being purchased as investments based around the banking on extinction principle.

Adding to complications is the fact that leopard skins with head attached have long been used by taxidermists legally before the skin trade was agreed to fall under bans by parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) although under the guise of trophy hunting there are still quotas in several African countries thus meaning legal transit. Records of origin are required before skins can be sold legally but the sheer volume of leopards killed by poachers suggests abuse of this system.

Two of biggest seizures of leopard skins occurred in 2003 when 109 were seized in April of that year in Kathmandu, Nepal while 581 were seized in Sangsang, Tibet, in October. Investigations revealed that nearly all the skins originated from leopards in India and confirmed China as a main destination point with Nepal as a key transit area. Twenty years later this Snapshot tells that those dynamics have not changed. In Phase 2 we expand on this scenario.

The illegal trade in leopard canines (including teeth), claws and bones have shared dynamics with the trafficking of skins but also differing aspects. All three can fill demand as substitutes for tiger parts which are generally harder to obtain although the role of tiger farms tests that thinking. Both canines and claws are sold as trinkets and amulets, mainly as good luck charms but are sometimes perceived to have deeper meanings with links to black magic practitioners having occurred in investigations. Seizures of leopard teeth in particular have sometimes been in hauls also containing skins, this has also happened with claws and sometimes bones. The sales of leopard teeth and claws when intercepted have usually been for domestic markets indicating demand within source countries from people with superstitious tendencies. The ease of concealment of teeth and claws suggests less is understood about trans border trade.

Leopard bones, while sometimes seized in conjunction with other leopard parts either at points of sale or in possession of traders, have a more select market usually linked to traditional medicines meaning that there is a specific demand and market dynamic. The use of leopard bones in China is well known and the situation is complicated in that there is a domestic loophole allowing such use as exposed by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in 2018. At least Thirty five different medicinal products were found to contain leopard bone and thought to be in manufactured in China. The EIA investigation found that 31 companies were involved, the full report is HERE including explanation of the loopholes being used. With China having a low leopard population with strict protection laws apparently well enforced this is a conservation paradox. There is no proof the bones used in these medicines are coming from official stockpiles put together before trade bans and with the permits showing quantities of a volume that would require leopards in their hundreds to have been slaughtered. Phase 2 of Snapshot will bring more information on this issue.

Seizures of these three body parts as well as occasional incidents involving leopard skulls, meat and other organs being seized are less than that of skins as mentioned earlier but the extent of trade cannot be underestimated. In January of 2000 a seizure of 18,000 leopard claws occurred in Khaga, Uttar Pradesh, India. A leopard has 18 claws, this means that at least 1000 leopards died to build up this quantity. As with every seizure the question has to be asked as to what happened to the other body parts.

Who is doing the killing and trading?

While demand reduction for leopard body parts is an important element in reducing the poaching/trafficking paradigm and the information above giving indications of end users, there is an urgent need for more effort in the prevention of leopards being killed in the first place. Human – leopard conflict is a serious issue in South Asia and the likelihood of leopard body parts hitting the illegal market after kills made in retaliation is well recognized and an issue WildTiger is currently exploring. Targeted poaching for the body parts and markets explained above is still a serious factor though and once again there are complications in the overall understanding of the different entities involved in the actual killing of leopards. Organized crime networks are involved in illegal wildlife trade on a broad scale and increased knowledge through intelligence gathering including seizures and arrests of traders shows that organized crime groups certainly have a role in the trafficking of leopard body parts.

Individuals and groups not connected to organized crime networks are also involved and in many ways can make the trade harder to detect as investigating trafficking threads becomes problematic. Opportunistic or non-professional traders and/or poachers can be the result of economic hardship or other issues outside established networks operating for profit. This means there is the dynamic resulting in circumstances such as the fate of leopard in the image below.

This leopard died after being ripped apart by a snare in west Nepal in 2022. Investigation found that the snare was among several set to capture wild boar in an effort to reduce crop raiding but that any boars caught did have their meat consumed or sold. Investigation of other such incidents have found that such poachers not targeting leopards will consider them a lucky catch and while the skin may not be suitable for sale after snare damage, the other body parts mentioned in this snapshot are.

Targeted or non targeted, leopards killed have their body parts hitting the illegal market in different ways. Phase 2 of Snapshot will go deeper into these issues and our efforts in collaboration with partners working on the situation.

Taking a key predator out of functioning ecosystems can have serious ramifications but what is less recognized is that leopards taken out of areas such as forests used for grazing livestock or agricultural land (e.g. sugarcane) affect gene pool as well as trophic layer effects as crop raiders such as wild boar and monkey species are less predated. Snares, poisoning as well as other brutal methods of killing leopards beg the question of our own humanity in the persecution of this animal, the leopard ripped apart in that last image an example of this brutality, one of that death toll of over 5000 we do know about in the region and timespan described, not to mention the thousands more which never get recorded.

WildTiger remains vigilant in efforts to combat wildlife trafficking, we are determined to see a reduction of leopards killed for body parts trafficking.