Jaipur: Rajasthan is about to launch the Rs 50 million Project Panther, as a large number of these big cats fall prey to poachers or get killed by villagers after straying into human habitats, a forest official said Tuesday.

The project has been envisaged on the lines of 'Project Tiger' and to begin with will be launched in the protected Kumbhalgarh wildlife sanctuary situated in Pali and Rajsamand districts of the state.

“A lot of discussion is going on about the dwindling numbers of panthers as they are being poached or killed by villages situated near forest areas. Many such incidents have been reported in Rajasthan recently. We aim to come out with steps to save the wild cats before it is too late,” said the forest official.

“A budget of Rs.50 million has been earmarked for the five-year-long project. We will be spending Rs 5 million during the first year,” the official said.

He said at least a dozen patches in Kumbhalgarh sanctuary have panthers in large numbers. “The caves there, especially in its outer areas, are home to panthers. But a decline in the population of prey for panthers, including rabbits, deer and cheetals has forced them to search for food in nearby residential areas,” said the officer.

The villagers kill panthers out of fear, mainly by poisoning them, the officer said, adding it has posed a threat to their existence in the area.

“Under Project Panther, we will start building boundary walls and prohibit grazing of animals in the sanctuary, besides covering the open wells into which straying panthers usually fall,” said the officer.

According to a census, there are about 130 panthers in Kumbhalgarh sanctuary alone.

“The project will be extended to other areas after completion of the first phase,” said the officer.