Scientific Name: Uncia uncia
While resting, snow leopards often wrap their long tails around their faces and bodies for warmth.
Snow leopards are medium-sized carnivorous cats (about eight times the weight of a housecat) that live in the high altitude mountain ranges of Central Asia.
STATUS: Snow leopards are listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to poaching, habitat loss, prey base loss, and retributive killings. There are an estimated 4,000 to 7,000 individuals that survive globally, roughly 600 of which live in zoos worldwide. These big cats are hunted for their fur, which is especially valuable in Russia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe as material for coats and other clothing, and for their bones and organs, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Loss of habitat is primarily due to the expansion of domestic farming and livestock herding. As high altitude grasslands are taken over by human development, the leopards’ natural prey is crowded out, which forces the cats into preying upon livestock instead of other large mammals. This causes conflict with local people, who often retaliate by trapping, poisoning, or shooting snow leopards.
HABITAT: These large cats live in the mountains of Central Asia just below the permanent snow line (10,000 to 18,000 feet above sea level); their range includes countries such as Afghanistan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, and Russia. The cats prefer steep, rocky terrain with cliffs, ridges, and ravines for cover. The habitat is sparsely vegetated with coniferous forest scrub.
DIET: Snow leopards are powerful hunters, often killing prey up to three times their own weight! They most commonly eat wild sheep and goats (such as blue sheep, or bharal, and Asiatic ibex), though they will also eat smaller animals such as marmots, hares, rodents, and game birds. As opportunistic predators, snow leopards have been reported to feed on livestock when their natural prey becomes scarce.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Snow leopards have dense, woolly fur (which can measure up to five inches long on their bellies) that varies from white to yellowish-tan to smoky gray, patterned with dark-gray to black rosette-like spots. Adult snow leopards weigh 60 to 120 pounds, stand about two feet tall at the shoulder, and measure between six to seven and a half feet long from their heads to the tips of their tails (which can reach lengths of up to three and a half feet). Males tend to be 30 percent larger than females, but otherwise the sexes are similar.
These cats possess short forelimbs and long hind limbs, which helps them to jump and maneuver through their steep environment. Snow leopards are able to jump as far as 50 feet; their long tails aid in balance, and their large, wide paws are covered in fur and act as natural snowshoes. In addition to these adaptations, snow leopards have a large chest capacity and strong lungs which allow them to breathe the thin mountain air. The cats have short, broad noses to account for their enlarged nasal cavities that warm cold air before it hits the sensitive lung tissue.
The folklore of many local peoples across the snow leopards’ range portrays the cats as shape-changing mountain spirits due to their solitary nature, elusive behavior, and almost supernatural ability to blend in among the rocks. With such efficient camouflage, snow leopards are nearly impossible to locate in the wild, which makes them very difficult to research and study.