- HB Length: 86-125 cm (34-49″)
- Tail Length: 80-105 cm (31-41″)
- Height: 60 cm (24″)
- Weight: 22-52 kg (48-115 lbs)
Unique among wild cats, the beautiful smoky grey fur of the Snow Leopard Panthera uncia has been the cause of their near extinction at the hands of man. First brought to the attention of the Europeans in 1761, their thick, plush fur became popular worldwide, and in spite of legal restrictions, their wild population plummeted.
Their long, dense fur is smoky grey to yellowish, and a pattern of large, dark rosettes and spots allows them to blend completely into their snow covered, rocky terrain. Unlike most spotted cats, the Snow Leopard has paler, less distinct spotting on the body and flanks, the head is dotted with smaller, round black spots. The chin, chest and belly are almost pure white. Being an animal of high altitude, their woolly fur is exceedingly long, up to 2.5 cm on the back and six cm on the belly. Their long, rounded tail is used as a wrap for warmth when sleeping, and the fur on the tail can be up to five cm long. Several rosettes form black rings on the upper side of the tail, with less distinct spotting on the underside.
Like the Clouded Leopard Neofelis nebulosa of Malaysia, the Snow Leopard is intermediate between big and small cats. Like the small cats, Snow Leopards purr but cannot roar, and they feed in a crouched position. Their skull is large, shortened and broadened with a short muzzle, high forehead and vertical chin. Irises are pale yellowish to greenish grey, and the pupils are round. The backs of their short, rounded ears are black at the tips and the base, with grey median bars. Short, rounded ears are thought to be an adaptation for stalking prey in areas of little cover, an adaptation shared by other mountain and desert dwelling species. Their broad foot pads are covered with a cushion of hair which increases the surface area and distributes their weight more evenly over snow. This cushion also protects their pads from the intense cold.
These beautiful leopards are found in 12 countries in Central Asia, and their habitat includes some of the world’s highest mountain ranges. Historically found over much of high altitude Asia, including Mongolia, China through Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal, they have probably never been common, due to the harsh environment.
They inhabit steep rugged terrain, alpine meadows, rocky areas, snow fields and glaciers up to 5,500 metres. In winter, they follow the game to lower levels, down to 900-1,500 m in the Gobi Desert.
Radio telemetry studies have found that due to the scarcity of prey, Snow Leopards possess vast territories, which they defend by scent marking, scrapes, and fecal deposits. One radio-collared female in Mongolia was estimated to hold a territory of at least 1,590 km2 while male ranges were 181 – 1,628 km2. Daily movements may be as much as 28 km or more.
It is very difficult to assess population numbers of these rare leopards, and estimates from camera trapping studies vary from 0.15 cats per 100 km2 in Kyrgyzstan to 4.5 cats per 100 km2 in a prey rich habitat.
The agile Snow Leopards are renowned for their leaping ability, executing jumps from six to 15 metres through the air. Their long tail, up to two metres, acts as an effective counterbalance. Exceedingly shy and secretive animals, they prefer to move along ridge lines, edges of bluffs and bases of cliffs which provide an excellent view of the surrounding area. These solitary animals are active early morning and late evening, and often rest on huge nests built by black vultures during the daylight hours. These vantage points are not reached by climbing, but by jumping.
In the winter months, Snow Leopards consume a large portion of plant matter, much of it willow bark. Like the Cougar Puma concolor of North America, Snow Leopards stalk their prey from an uphill position, creeping up and then grabbing it in a sudden spring. There is no record of any unprovoked attack on man.
Mating occurs in late winter or early spring, with one to five, usually two or three, cubs born after a 90 – 104 day gestation, weighing 450 – 500 grams. Births occur from April to June beneath rocks or in rock crevices, in dens lined with fur. Cubs initially have completely black spots, lacking the lighter central area of the adults. Their eyes open in seven to nine days, they begin crawling after 10 days, and at two months begin eating solids. The family stays together until the following winter. Sexual maturity is reached around two and a half years in captivity, although it is believed to be later in the wild. In captivity, they have lived to 21 years of age.
Snow Leopards have suffered tremendously at the hands of man. There are an estimated 4,000 – 7,000 of these magnificent cats left, currently spread over a wide arc of the Central Asian highlands. Their main prey species of large ungulates have been hunted out of many areas by man, and large scale pika and marmot poisoning programs have also been conducted on the Tibetan Plateau.
The cats are threatened by livestock owners who kill them as predators while at the same time increasing their domestic stock to the detriment of the cat’s natural prey. Education in animal husbandry techniques and improved animal pens are essential steps in reducing this predation. Research has found that properly protected domestic stock is rarely taken by Snow Leopards.
They are also poached for their skin, bones and other body parts for their perceived medicinal properties, principally in China.
Protected in India since 1952, hunting has nevertheless continued in northern India and the bordering Himalayan states because the fur is so valuable. In Mongolia, legal hunting is allowed for tourists, who pay thousands of dollars for the chance to shoot one of these rare cats. They are protected year round in Russia, but due to the economy, poaching is rising.
Unfortunately, Snow Leopard pelts are still arriving on the market, and coats from these and other endangered cats can be found in various gift shops in Nepal. The market is aimed solely at the tourist, as the local people do not have the means to purchase the coats. Until the demand for exotic furs disappears in the richer countries, the incentive will remain for native people to poach these and other endangered animals.
Even though they live in remote, inhospitable areas, Snow Leopards are still declining at the hands of man.
Photo © Ben Williams
Range Map IUCN Red Data List (2008)