Snow Leopards are one of the most beautiful and mystical wild cats. They have a proud bearing and people are drawn to their unusual white/gray color. Snow leopards are also very elusive and few people have seen them in the wild. They are rare and endangered and live in some of the most extreme high altitude and cold climate on earth.
Researchers and conservationists estimate there are only between 3000 to 6000 snow leopards still surviving. They live in the rugged mountainous regions of 12 countries – Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The snow leopard is listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The IUCN is an international organisation dedicated to conservation of animals and their habitat. It keeps an updated Red List of Threatened Species of all animals on our planet and their status in terms of numbers based on scientific research. It has listed snow leopards as endangered for many years. It is a sad fact that the biggest threat to snow leopards (like most other endangered animals) are humans. Humans have for centuries hunted them for their fur and their bones; fur to wear as coats and hats, and bones to be used in traditional medicines. Humans also destroy snow leopard habitat and food sources by killing the prey animals they need to feed on. When the natural wild prey animals are not available snow leopards will often kill and eat domestic livestock like sheep and goats belonging to villagers they share the mountains with. When this happens the villagers will in turn kill the snow leopard to protect their livestock, which is often the only resource standing between them and poverty.
According to the IUCN Red List snow leopards are believed to have declined by at least 20% over the past 16 years due to habitat and prey base loss, as well as poaching and persecution. Losses to poaching were most severe in the former Russian republics during the 1990s. Conditions there have improved marginally for the animal but the illegal trade is estimated to be continuing as demand for body parts from China is growing. Some countries have designated snow leopard areas as National Parks. However often these are too small to conserve viable snow leopard populations, as there are not enough prey animals in the area for them to feed on.
Also it must be remembered, even if there is an estimate of snow leopard numbers still in the thousands, many live in such small populations, cut off from prospective mates by human populations, war zones and geography, that it is unlikely they will breed and reproduce. Many conservation programs in the wild however, are working to halt the decline of the snow leopard.
Snow Leopards are well adapted for their severe environment. Snow leopards are smaller than the big cats and generally weigh between 28 and 55 kilos. The body length is around 75 to 130 cm with the tail length being almost the same length. The tail is long and thick and helps the cat keep itself warm as it wraps the tail around the body during sleep. Also the long tail helps each snow leopard keep balance and speed as it races down rocky inclines of mountains in pursuit of prey like wild sheep and goats.
The fur is beautiful, long and thick, the base color of which varies from smokey gray to yellowish tan, with whitish underparts. The dark gray to black round markings are called rosettes and these are also on the head and legs and tail. Each snow leopard’s markings are subtly different and this is one way that researchers can tell them apart. Sadly the beauty of this fur is one reason the animal is endangered as it is often hunted for its pelt to be made into coats, although this is illegal in all range countries.
Other ways that snow leopards are adapted for living in cold mountainous environments include their stocky bodies, thick fur and ears that are small and rounded, all of which help to minimise heat-loss. Their paws are very wide, this distributes their weight better for walking on snow, with fur on the underside to increase traction on unstable rock and shale surfaces.
An individual snow leopard lives within a well-defined home range but doesn’t defend its territory aggressively when encroached upon by other snow leopards. Snow leopards are generally shy, even within their own species and will only seek out other snow leopards during mating season. Home ranges vary greatly in size. In Nepal, where prey is abundant, there may be between 5 to 10 cats sharing an area of 100 square km. But in regions where prey animals are scarce 5 cats would need an area of 1,000 square km to find enough prey animals to live on.
The snow leopard lives in the Himalayas, the mountains of Central Asia and the Mountains of Southwest China as well as the Tibetan plateau. Their range covers 12 countries – Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Snow leopards typically inhabit rugged terrain such as steep slopes with bluffs, ridges broken by outcrops, and valleys interrupted by cliffs, with arid and semi-arid shrublands and grasslands.
They live at altitudes between 3000 – 4500 m (9800 – 14,800′) but has also been known to go above 5500 m (18,000′) in the Himalaya in summer. In Mongolia and on the Tibetan Plateau, the snow leopard can be found in flat country, especially if rock ridges and ledges provide protective travel routes, and outcrops provide sufficient cover. During winter it will often descend to lower elevations in search of prey, but in summer it moves back up the mountain to the steepest and most remote terrain. Some parts of its range, such as the massifs of the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, Tibet’s Chang Tang, and the northern rim of Ladoga, are virtually devoid of vegetation.
Mating usually occurs between late January and mid–March. Gestation period is between 13 and 15 weeks. Births usually occur in June or July and litters size can vary from 1 – 5 but usually 2 – 3. The cubs will open their eyes when they are about 7-9 days old.
The cubs eat their first solid food when they are about 2 months old, and 2-3 months later begin to follow their mother when she goes hunting. They learn to hunt with the mother at least through their first winter and then leave the mother at 18 – 22 months of age. The young siblings might remain together briefly but then each will go its separate way.
Snow leopards have been known to live up to 21 years in captivity. In the wild however they will only live to about 9 or 10 yrs. Some snow leopards have reproduced up to 15 years in captivity.
Biologist researchers like George Schaller have shown that snow leopards prey on whatever ungulates (that is sheep and goats) are available from wild pigs and markhor with their twisted horns to Himalayan tahrs, takins, and argalis. In Mongolia they also prey on wild Bactrian camels and gazelles. However, their staple prey, without which they could not survive in most areas, consists of blue sheep and ibex. They will also eat marmots, a small mammal that looks a little like a cross between a meerkat and a rabbit. Until recently not much was known about specific diet but studies have shown blue sheep and marmots as the most important prey in summer, supplemented with deer, hares and an occasional bird.
Snow leopards will also prey on livestock where it is not well protected. Other research suggests an adult snow leopard might need 20 – 30 adult blue sheep annually and kill a large prey animal every 10 – 15 days. When a snow leopard kills a large animal like an ibex it may take it many days to eat it.
Snow leopards seem to be very adaptive as studies show in Nepal they’re generally crepuscular, that is, active around dawn until about 10 o’clock and then again in the late afternoon and evening. In Ladakh, in northern India, however, it seems the animal is more nocturnal because here it has to survive largely on domestic livestock and therefore needs to be wary of human retribution.
Snow leopards can’t roar because of their different vocal chords. Most zoo keepers working with the snow leopard use the word “prusten” for the sound the cat makes. It’s a German word meaning to puff and to blow. It’s a soft sound snow leopards make to each other and sometimes to keepers. In the wild they use it to communicate when meeting for mating. Some people also call it “chuffing”. See video of snow leopard Hercules from Big Cat rescue doing his “chuffing” talk to keepers. Video is called Snow Leopard Hello!
The National Geographic web page on snow leopards has an audio file where you can hear the sound a snow leopard makes. Check it out here. While snow leopards share part of their name with the true leopard, scientists have come to the conclusion that the two aren’t closely related. The difference is in the skull structure of the snow leopard as well as the fact that their vocal chords are underdeveloped and they can’t roar like other big cats. Snow leopards have in the past been classified alone in the Uncia genus. Now however they have been shown to be related to tigers and are classified with Panthera. Love and Lightning Bugs,