The Snow Leopard: Ghost Cat of the Mountains

Snow Leopard by Steffiheufelder. CC0 1.0 Public Domain.

This is an important time for snow leopards (Panthera uncia). In August, representatives from all 12 snow leopard range countries will be meeting in Kyrgyzstan for the Global Snow Leopard Summit. The Snow Leopard Trust has started a petition to urge the leaders at this meeting to strengthen their commitments to save snow leopards, which you can view here. Therefore, this seems like the perfect time to release a quick-facts guide to this most enchanting of cats.

Population Status

No one knows for sure how many snow leopards remain in the wild, but the total is thought to be between 4,500 – 10,000 (Panthera, 2016b). That number is falling, and snow leopards are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The wild snow leopard population has likely fallen by at least 20% in the last 16 years alone (Jackson, Mallon, McCarthy, Chundaway, & Habib, 2008).

Size

The snow leopard is the smallest member of the genus Panthera, despite being most closely related to the largest: the tiger (Panthera tigris). Male snow leopards weigh between 25 – 55 kg (55 – 121 lbs), whereas females have been measured between 21 – 53 kg (46 – 117 lbs) (Hunter, 2015).

Range and Habitat

The snow leopard’s 1.2 – 1.6 million km2 range includes parts of Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan (Jackson et al. 2010; Jackson et al., 2008). While this might seem like a large distribution, keep in mind that snow leopards inhabit some of the harshest and most unforgiving landscapes on Earth.

Snow leopards have been recorded at altitudes from 3,000 to over 5,000 m (9,842 – 16,404 ft) in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. However, they have been found at considerably lower heights (600 m/1,969 ft) in other parts of their range (Macdonald, Loveridge, & Nowell, 2010). Snow leopards favor rocky and rugged terrain, but they spend little time in dense forests (Hunter, 2015).

Snow Leopard Range by Laurascudder. CC BY-SA 3.0
Special Adaptations

Snow leopards are uniquely adapted to cold, mountainous habitats. They have oversized tails and paws for balance and grip, long and dense underfur, and enlarged nasal cavities that warm the air they breathe in. Snow leopards also possess superb camouflage. Their white and grey coats, sprinkled with black rosettes, help make snow leopards nearly invisible against rocky backgrounds (Jackson et al., 2014). It also makes them one of the most beautiful cats. As Dr. Luke Hunter (2015) points out, snow leopards are “unmistakable” (p. 175).

Diet

Snow leopards can kill prey up to three times their own weight (Jackson et al., 2010). They rely heavily on mountain ungulates, with their range closely mirroring that of Asiatic ibex (Capra sibirica) and blue sheep/bharal (Pseudois nayaur). Snow leopards also take small animals, such as marmots and hares (Hunter, 2015; Jackson et al., 2008; Jackson et al., 2014). Livestock forms a significant part of snow leopard diet in some areas, which contributes to retaliatory killings of the cats (Hunter, 2015).

Blue Sheep Pseudois nayaur (Male) by Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi. CC BY-SA 4.0
Threats

The snow leopard’s continuing decline is caused by numerous factors. These include:

  • Human-Wildlife Conflict. Snow leopards sometimes harm livestock, which engenders hostility and persecution by local people. In rare instances, snow leopards have been known to enter poorly-constructed corrals and kill up to 50 animals at once (Jackson et al., 2014).
  • Habitat Loss and Degradation. This can take many forms, with the most pronounced being overgrazing of rangelands. An overabundance of livestock in one area can seriously harm mountain ecosystems, leading to declines in snow leopard prey. Increasing mining, infrastructure development, and climate change do not help either.
  • Illegal Trade. Snow leopard fur is highly coveted in China and eastern Europe, where it is used for rugs and taxidermy (Hunter, 2015; Jackson et al., 2014). Snow leopard body parts are also valued in traditional Asian medicines (TAM), since they are thought to have curative properties (Panthera, 2016b; Jackson et al., 2010; Hunter, 2015). This demand will likely increase as poaching for the TAM trade continues to drive tigers, the target of choice, towards extinction.
Conservation Strategies

Many approaches are being used to help save snow leopards, and I cannot hope to do justice to them here. They include improving the conditions of mountain rangelands, education, combatting the illegal trade, working with local communities to reduce livestock depredation, and trying to bolster tolerance for the cats (Jackson et al., 2008). A number of financial incentives are being used to achieve this last goal, which I might write about in a future post.

Further Reading:

Hunter, L. (2015). Wild cats of the world. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Jackson, R., Mallon, D., Mishra, C., Noras, S., Sharma, R., Suryawanshi, K. (2014). Snow leopard survival strategy. Seattle, WA: Snow Leopard Network.

Jackson, R., Mallon, D., McCarthy, T., Chundaway, R.A. & Habib, B. (2008). Panthera uncia. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Specie 2008: e.T22732A9381126. Retrieved from http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/full/22732/0.

Panthera. (2016b). Snow leopard. Available at https://www.panthera.org/cat/snow-leopard.

 

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