Snow leopards live in harsh, often snowy environments. Dense, woolly underfur up to five inches long provides excellent insulation, and their long 40-inch tail can wrap around their faces and body for added warmth. Enlarged nasal cavities allow these cats to breathe easily at the high altitudes where they live, warming the cold air before it’s inhaled. Their large, wide, fur-covered paws act as natural snowshoes. Snow leopards can jump 30 to 50 feet between mountain ledges, using their tails to balance. Powerful hunters, snow leopards often kill prey up to three times their own weight. Unlike other large cats, though, snow leopards cannot roar—instead they hiss, growl, and chuff.
The folklore of many local peoples across the snow leopards’ range portrays these 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 effective camouflage, snow leopards are nearly impossible to locate in the wild, which makes them very difficult to research and study. Sadly, these big cats are hunted for their fur, which is especially valuable in Russia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. In Asia, their bones and organs are used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Snow leopards live in the steep, rocky mountains and shrubland of Central Asia, including the Himalayan range in Nepal, China, India, and Pakistan. Snow leopards are also found in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. They live just below the permanent snow line at around 10,000 feet above sea level.
Like all cats, snow leopards are carnivores. They eat primarily wild sheep and goats (ibex, markhors, and blue sheep) but will also feed on smaller prey such as marmots, pikas, hares, small rodents, and birds. When natural prey is scarce, snow leopards have been reported to feed on livestock.
Adult snow leopards are six to seven-and-a-half feet long from their heads to the tips of their tails. They weigh 60 to 120 pounds, and males are slightly larger than females. In the wild, snow leopards can live up to 18 years, but in human care can live up to 20 years.