The snow leopard is one of the most elusive creatures on our planet. Known as the ghost cat of the Himalayas, the snow leopard is seldom seen in the wild.
They live in remote, harsh habitats that make it impossible to gauge their exact numbers. Scientists estimate that there are only between 3,500 and 7,000 wild individuals remaining.
Snow leopards are medium-sized cats, with a thick, greyish-white fur, patterned with dark rosettes. Both colouring and patterning help them to blend in perfectly with their surroundings. The snow leopard is adapted for life in this harsh terrain and equipped for the long and brutal winters at extremely high elevations.
The snow leopard has very large paws that allow him to walk in deep snow. His short, well-developed front legs, strong chest and flexible tail help with balance as he jumps over rocks and climbs steep cliffs. His tail is very long (sometimes as long as his body) and he can wrap it around his body and face to keep warm on the coldest of nights.
Threats to the snow leopard
Sadly, this majestic cat is facing extinction in the wild. The snow leopard was placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as early as 1972. He was listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as an endangered species in 1975, making it illegal to transport any snow leopard parts across international borders. Several factors have contributed to the decline of the snow leopard population.
Habitat degradation: While the number of humans who live in snow leopard habitat is small, they are widespread. Most of them are herders who use the land for livestock grazing. The overgrazing of domestic herds leaves little forage for wild goats and sheep, the main prey species of the snow leopard.
Human-wildlife conflict: Snow leopards may target the livestock of local herders, especially when the numbers of their own natural prey species have declined. Herders often retaliate for stock lost by killing snow leopards. Poison, traps and firearms are used to kill so-called problem cats. Herders do not understand how important the snow leopard is to the balance of the ecosystem.
Poaching: The demand for snow leopard parts has increased and despite their status as a protected species, illegal trade continues. The snow leopard’s beautiful fur is used in garment manufacturing in some Asian countries as well as Russia. Bones and other body parts are sought-after for traditional Asian medicine and can sell for thousands of dollars. Live cats are captured for private collections. Poachers are often those who live close to the habitat of snow leopards. Poverty is high in these areas and people are lured by the seemingly ‘easy’ way to make extra money – often for basic needs like food and shelter.
Working for snow leopards
Panthera directs and implements conservation strategies for large and endangered wild cats. Their mission is to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific leadership and global conservation action. Panthera’s Snow Leopard Programme is led by Dr Tom McCarthy, one of the world’s leading authorities on the cat. Panthera operates in 9 of the 12 snow leopard countries, with plans to expand into the remaining 3 over the next few years.
The Snow Leopard Programme employs a multi-pronged approach to advancing the conservation of the species. In addition to their conservation research and monitoring of low-density snow leopard and prey populations in rugged habitat, Panthera also works with local governments and other stakeholders to create action plans that will impact snow leopard conservation at a higher level. They also work in the field in the snow leopard habitat to engage communities and help minimise human-wildlife conflict through various programmes.
The Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) was founded in 2000 by leading snow leopard expert Dr Rodney Jackson. The SLC works with local people to help them find ways to live harmoniously with the snow leopards, not only to help prevent stock loss, but also to become guardians of these majestic animals. The construction of predator-proof corrals and ongoing education for locals, especially children, is part of the conservation education drive of the SLC.
They are also committed to the study of the snow leopard, his prey and habitat through camera traps, faecal sampling and radio-tracking to monitor movement. Understanding more about these elusive cats is critical in finding ways to conserve them. They have also helped to set up eco-tourism opportunities for locals.
Fact file: Snow leopard
Scientific name: Panthera uncia
Distribution: Found at high altitudes in the rugged mountains of Central Asia – across 12 countries, including Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Nepal, India and China.
Habitat: Rugged, remote mountains; steep cliffs, ravines.
Lifespan: Difficult to determine; about 21 years in captivity, but likely much less in the wild.
Weight: 35-50kg (females are smaller)
Diet: Wild sheep, goats and small prey
Behaviour: Snow leopards are solitary, wide-ranging cats, except females who are raising cubs. Snow leopards are most active at dusk and dawn. They have very large home ranges and tend to frequent an area for a time, often when they have made a kill of a large wild prey animal, and then move on. They scent mark on trees and boulders with a pungent-smelling liquid released from a scent gland close to the tail.
Reproduction: 1 to 5 cubs (most frequently 2 or 3) are born after a gestation period of 90 to 100 days. They stay with the mother until they are independent at about 2 years old.
Text: Gina Hartoog. Photography: Dennis Donohue, Caroline Vancoillie and Victoria Hillman
For the full story get the August 2014 issue of Animaltalk Magazine. Visit Coolmags.com for subscription details.