New Delhi: Watching a leopard stroll on sun-beaten tracks at dusk is a sight that never fades away, yet these big cats are now in danger in India.
At least 130 leopards have been poached this year, say experts calling the figures "alarming".
Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra recorded the highest number of leopard deaths, stated the NGO Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).
There have been reports of 240 leopard deaths so far.
Across the country, 17 leopards were killed in man-animal conflict, 19 died in road accidents, eight were shot dead by the forest department, six died in rescue operations, two killed by other big cats, while 58 more were found dead, says WPSI.
The rest of the deaths are feared to have been caused by poaching.
Uttarakhand has seen a spurt in leopard deaths. Twenty-nine leopards were poached, four killed in man-animal conflict, including three that were shot dead by the forest department. Fifteen leopard skins and bones were seized.
"Thirty-one more leopards were found dead in the state. Some died of natural causes, but others may have died in conflict. We don`t have proof," said Tito Joseph of the WPSI. Seven more died in road accidents.
A census in 2007 showed 2,300 leopards in the state.
"We are compiling a report as part of the tiger census this year which will reveal the latest figure of leopards," Paramjit Singh, chief conservator of forests of Uttarakhand, told IANS.
There is no record of the total number of this agile and stealthy predator in India. They are protected by Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, the highest protection provided to wild animals.
Fifteen leopards were poached in Maharashtra, 13 in Uttar Pradesh and 12 in Karnataka. Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Assam and Himachal Pradesh have also seen leopard deaths in man-animal conflicts.
The buffer areas of wildlife sanctuaries have been the main poaching grounds. Some of these places have seen intense man-animal conflict.
Among big cats, leopards are the most adaptable. They are skilled climbers. Wildlife enthusiasts swear by the exquisite grace with which the animal sways while disappearing into the forests.
Each year, a large number of these endangered animals face unnatural deaths.
In 2009, some 160 cases of poaching and body parts seizures were recorded.
In 2008, the figure was 157, according to the NGO.
Some members of Haryana`s Bawaria tribe are alleged to be involved in organised poaching and operate across a vast areas in and around wildlife sanctuaries. They are expert hunters.
"These people (Bawaria poachers) know only how to hunt. They don`t have anything else to do. So they kill them for money. It`s business," said Singh.
"Poachers from other states also come in two- or three-member groups," he said.
Tito said there are different types of poachers: "One type is organised like the Bawarias.
"Another type is opportunistic - for instance, one who faces the threat of leopard attacks. He will poison the animal and skin it. When he gets a chance he will sell it.
"The third type looks to hunt other animals but will kill a leopard if there is an opportunity."