Field guide to snow leopards
The ultimate guide to Snow Leopards that has everything you ever wanted to know about these beautiful big cats, from what Snow Leopards eat to how to see them in the wild
Mysterious, famously elusive and increasingly rare, the beautiful snow leopard is literally the stuff of legends. Slowly lifting the veil of mystery surrounding these fascinating big cats is Charu Mishra, science and conservation director for the Snow Leopard Trust.
Known as ‘ghosts of the mountain’, snow leopards are among the world’s most elusive creatures. Silently roaming the inhospitable, rugged mountain ranges of Central Asia, these endangered cats have been central figures in the myths and legend of local communities for centuries. In modern times, however, snow leopards and people have more often been at odds. These cats have been hunted for their fur, killed in retaliation for predating on livestock, or sometimes simply driven away as their habitat is destroyed by overgrazing or mining. Today, just 4,000 to 6,500 snow leopards are believed to be left in the wild. They can be found in 12 countries across Central Asia.Due to their elusive nature, snow leopards are among the least understood felines, and pioneering scientific studies in several countries are only now starting to allow us a glimpse into these rare, beautiful cats’ lives; their biology, behavior, and interaction – and ultimately, their need for a safe future.
Depending on your source, a search for scientific information on snow leopards may initially yield some confusion, as these cats are known as both Panthera uncia and Uncia uncia. What appears to be a minor naming issue hints at relatively recent genetic studies that have placed the snow leopard, formerly thought to form its own genus, Uncia, firmly within the genus Panthera – which includes all the other big cat species. Surprisingly, its closest relative is not the common leopard, but the tiger (Panthera tigris).
Where do snow leopards live?
Snow leopards live in the high, rugged mountains of central Asia. Spanning 12 countries and covering an area of roughly two million kilometres squared, their total habitat range is approximately the size of Greenland or Mexico. While these cats can also be found in Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, China contains as much as 60 per cent of all snow leopard habitat – and most likely more than half of the remaining wild cats.In the Himalayas, snow leopards are usually found between 3,000 and 5,400m above sea level. In Mongolia and Russia, they live at lower altitudes of around 1,000 meters. These cats prefer the broken terrain of cliffs, rocky outcrops, and ravines.
Physical CharacteristicsSnow leopards are exceptionally well-adapted to the cold, dry climates they inhabit. Instantly recognisable, their thick, dense fur keeps them comfortable when temperatures drop way below freezing – and from overheating when it gets hot in the summer!
Adult snow leopards weigh between 35 and 55 kg and stand approximately 60 cm tall at the shoulders. They measure about a metre from head to rump, and have tails that are as long as the rest of their bodies. Unlike many other cats, snow leopards can’t roar, making a non-aggressive puffing sound called a ‘chuff’ instead.
Serving both as a shawl to be wrapped around the face to keep warm, and as a balancing pole when navigating the steep, rocky terrain the cat calls home, a snow leopard’s long, thick tail is perhaps its most versatile feature. The extra-large paws are equally functional, preventing the cat from sinking into deep snow; much like a pair of snow shoes.
What do snow leopards eat?A snow leopard is a powerful hunter able to successfully take down an animal three times its own weight. Its diet varies depending on its location, but the cat most often hunts wild sheep and goats. The two most important prey species for snow leopards are blue sheep, or bharal (Pseudois nayaur) and Asiatic ibex (Capra ibex), a large wild goat. In some areas, the argali sheep (Ovis ammon) is also an important wild prey. Snow leopards are slow eaters, usually taking three or four days to consume a prey animal. During that time, the cat remains near the kill site to defend the meal from scavengers like vultures and ravens, eating every few hours until the carcass is bare. Like many predators, snow leopards are opportunistic hunters. If livestock is more easily available than wild prey, which is often the case, the cats will settle for domestic sheep, goats, horses, or young yaks. Snow leopards sometimes get into poorly constructed corrals, which results in multiple livestock getting killed in a single instance. Scientists have also found that snow leopards eat some grass, twigs, and other vegetation. This is something quite common among house cats. The vegetation may serve as a source of extra vitamins, aid in digestion, or help the cats eliminate parasites—no one knows for sure.
BehaviourGiven their elusive nature, it’s no surprise that there remain many mysteries about the behaviour of snow leopards. However, in recent years, thanks to studies with GPS collars and research cameras, scientists have been able to improve their understanding of these cats by leaps and bounds. We now know that each individual inhabits a defined home range that it regularly patrols. Depending on the availability of prey, these ranges can be as small as 50km2 or much larger. Ariun, a particularly adventurous male cat the Snow Leopard Trust’s research team in Mongolia has been tracking with a GPS collar, calls an area of over 400km2 home: more than five times the size of Manhattan!In order to communicate across such distances, the cats leave markings on the landscape that other snow leopards will find. They scrape the ground with their hind legs and spray urine against rocks. Called ‘signs’, even faeces can act as signals to other cats.These signs become particularly important during mating season in early spring, when these usually solitary cats seek out the company of members of the opposite sex – and sometimes spend several days with a mating partner before moving on.Snow leopards are not aggressive towards humans. In all my years of work across central Asia, I have only come across two instances, one in Afghanistan and another one in China, where the cat was reported to have attacked a person. Neither of the attacks resulted in loss of life.
ReproductionEvery other year, if mating season has been successful, female snow leopards will start looking for a den site in late spring, restricting their movements significantly. Once they find a safe spot, preferably a cave or crack in the rock, they settle down to give birth. It appears (from research done only in the last two years) that the cubs remain inside the den during the first few months of their life, with their mother nursing them between hunting trips in the near vicinity. By late summer, the cubs start venturing outside with their mother, following her around and learning vital life skills. Around 18 months of age, young snow leopards finally leave their mother and set out to find a home range of their own – while mum looks for a new mating partner. In the summer of 2013, data from our radio-collared snow leopards showed that the likely father of a young cub spent some time near the den a few weeks after his offspring was born, raising questions about fatherly roles among male snow leopards – but there are no answers to those questions yet.
What are the main threats to snow leopards?
While the snow leopard is a top predator in its mountain ecosystem, human activities pose serious threats to these cats and their habitat. Poaching remains a major issue. Snow leopards are known for their beautiful fur, which is highly valued in central Asia, eastern Europe and Russia for garment making. Their bones and other body parts are in demand for use in traditional Asian medicine and wild snow leopards are also sometimes captured for private animal collections in central Asia. These regions face high levels of poverty and hunting can offer a source of extra income.Hunting the livestock of herding communities that share snow leopard habitat is another threat.
Many of the local herders are dependent on these animals for both money and food, and so the loss of even a single sheep or goat can cause severe economic hardship, leaving them with little choice but to retaliate against the snow leopard to prevent future attacks. Depending on where they live, herders use traps, poison, and rifles to kill wild snow leopards.Herd sizes and livestock numbers in snow leopard habitat continue to grow, leading to threats beyond retribution killings. Overgrazing has become a major issue. As domestic sheep, goats or yaks eat more and more wild grasses, wild ungulates such as blue sheep or mountain goats find less food, leading to a decrease in their populations. Unsustainable trophy hunting, or hunting for meat, further adds to the decline of these natural snow leopard prey species – leaving the cats with fewer food options.In recent years, the discovery of abundant natural resources such as gold in many central Asian countries has led to an increase in mining activities across the region, threatening fragile snow leopard habitat. Miners use dangerous chemicals and explosives to extract minerals from the mountains where snow leopards live, causing severe ecological damage that forces snow leopards and their prey to relocate. The mountain ranges snow leopards call home often form international boundaries between countries. While snow leopards know no boundaries, these international borders tend to be heavily militarised and disturbed, displacing the endangered cat further. In the Himalayas, large scale hydroelectricity projects and other developmental initiatives are opening up previously remote snow leopard habitats, leading to habitat degradation and fragmentation.
Responsible ViewingRepeated references to the snow leopard’s elusiveness tends to set expectations of seeing one pretty low – and these cats are indeed among the most difficult animals to observe in the wild. Not only do they live in remote, inaccessible terrain but they’re also exceedingly rare. Population densities can be as low as one cat per 100km2, so there is virtually no way to guarantee a sighting even if you pick the perfect spot.For those prepared to spend a significant amount of time (and money), there are a handful of responsible tourism operators in range countries that organise snow leopard spotting expeditions – and they have fairly high success rates. All of them require participants to be in good physical condition, as there is a lot of trekking involved. Hemis National Park in north west India is a prime location to go on such a tour, but there are also options in Mongolia’s Altai Mountains, Pakistan’s Khunjerab National Park, the Tian Shan in Kyrgyzstan, as well as in Nepal.
About the Snow Leopard Trust
The Snow Leopard Trust is the largest and oldest organisation working solely to protect the endangered snow leopard and its habitat in central Asia. The Trust performs scientific research projects, manages community-level conservation programmes, and fosters global collaboration among snow leopard experts and other snow leopard support groups – working to secure a safe future for the Ghost of the Mountain. Learn more at www.snowleopard.org