India is home to three of the most charismatic big cats – the Bengal Tiger, the Asiatic Lion and the Indian Leopard.
Tigers are found virtually throughout the country, except Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, the Lakshadweep Islands, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Despite occupying a wide variety of habitats across the country, ranging from evergreen forests, deciduous forests, mangrove swamps to scrub forests, they are among the most threatened big cats of the world. According to the 2014 All India Tiger Estimation, only 2,226 adults remain. Apart from India, tigers are found in 12 other countries; however, over 65% of all tigers are found in India. The species is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Once widely distributed across the country, the only global population of Asiatic lions is now confined to the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary and some areas outside the Protected Areas of Gujarat. Only about 520 Asiatic lions remain. The various sub-populations within Gujarat are threatened by disease, natural disasters, poaching, and other human pressures including illegal lion-shows by baiting them with buffalo calves. The species is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
The Indian Leopard is the most widely distributed large cat across the country. Except the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans and above the tree line in the Himalayas, it is found throughout the country, occupying different forest types, scrublands and grasslands. Adapting to its rapidly shrinking habitats that turn into human-dominated landscapes, it frequently comes into conflict with humans and ends up being persecuted. An estimated 12000-14000 of these big cats remain, and the species is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN.
In honour of Wildlife Week, let’s renew our pledge to conserve India’s big cats in their natural habitats. For in doing so, we will have conserved all the wonderful life forms that call these forests, scrublands, grasslands and mangrove swamps home.