About snow leopards

See also these other pages on this Blog –

China Programs / India Programs

Mongolia programs / Nepal Programs

Why are snow leopards special? Snow Leopards are one of the most beautiful wild cats. They are rare and endangered and live in some of the most extreme high altitude and cold climate on earth.

How many Snow Leopards are left in the wild? We estimate there are only between 3000 to 6000 snow leopards still surviving. They live in  the rugged mountainous regions of 12 countries – Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Alcu injured by poachers trap. Kyrgyz Republic. Photo by NABU.

Alcu injured by poachers trap. Kyrgyz Republic. Photo by NABU.

Why are snow leopards endangered? The snow leopard is listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The IUCN is an international organisation dedicated to conservation of animals and their habitat. It keeps an updated Red List of Threatened Species of all animals on our planet and their status in terms of numbers based on scientific research. It has listed snow leopards as endangered for many years.The biggest threat to snow leopards (like most other endangered animals) are humans. Humans have for centuries hunted them for their fur and their bones. Fur to wear as coats and hats and bones to be used in traditional medicines. Humans also destroy snow leopard habitat and food sources by killing the prey animals they need to feed on. When the natural wild prey animals are not available snow leopards will often kill and eat domestic livestock like sheep and goats belonging to villagers they share the mountains with. When this happens the villagers will in turn kill the snow leopard to protect  their livestock, which is often the only resource standing between them and poverty.

Snow leopards are endangered

Snow leopards are endangered

The future of snow leopards . According to the IUCN Red List snow leopards are believed to have declined by at least 20% over the past 16 years due to habitat and prey base loss, as well as poaching and persecution. Losses to poaching were most severe in the former Russian republics during the 1990s. Conditions there have improved marginally for the animal but the illegal trade is estimated to be continuing as demand for body parts from China is growing.Some countries have designated snow leopard areas as National Parks. However often these are too small to conserve viable snow leopard populations, as there are not enough prey animals in the area for them to feed on.

Also it must be remembered, even if there is an estimate of snow leopard numbers still in the thousands, many live in such small populations, cut off from prospective mates by human populations, war zones and geography, that it is unlikely they will breed and reproduce.

Many conservation programs in the wild however, are working to halt the decline of the snow leopard. Find out how they work on this Blog – China Programs / India Programs / Mongolia Programs / Nepal Programs

Snow Leopards are adapted for their environment. Snow leopards are smaller than the big cats and generally weigh between 28 and 55 kilos. The body length is around 75 to 130 cm with the tail length being almost the same length. The tail is long and thick and helps the cat keep itself warm as it wraps the tail around the body during sleep. Also the long tail helps each snow leopard keep balance and speed as it races down rocky inclines of mountains in pursuit of prey like wild sheep and goats.

Snow leopard fur with rosettes close up

Snow leopard fur with rosettes close up

The fur is beautiful, long and thick, the base color of which varies from smokey gray to yellowish tan, with whitish underparts. The dark gray to black round markings are called rosettes and these are also on the head and legs and tail. Each snow leopard’s markings are subtly different and this is one way that researchers can tell them apart. Sadly the beauty of this fur is one reason the animal is endangered as it is often hunted for its pelt to be made into coats, although this is illegal in all range countries.

Other ways that snow leopards are adapted for living in cold mountainous environments include their stocky bodies, thick fur and ears that are small and rounded, all of which help to minimise heat-loss. Their paws are very wide, this distributes their weight better for walking on snow, with fur on the underside to increase traction on unstable rock and shale surfaces.

Size of home territory. An individual snow leopard lives within a well-defined home range but doesn’t defend its territory aggressively when encroached upon by other snow leopards.  Snow leopards are generally shy, even within their own species and will only seek out other snow leopards during mating season.

Home ranges vary greatly in size. In Nepal, where prey is abundant, there may be between 5 to 10 cats sharing an area of 100 square km. But in regions where prey animals are scarce 5 cats would need an area of 1,000 square km to find enough prey animals to live on.

More about snow leopards in their natural habitat.

Snow leopard range countries. Map Snow Leopard Conservancy

Snow leopard range countries. Map Snow Leopard Conservancy

The snow leopard lives in the Himalayas, the mountains of Central Asia and the Mountains of Southwest China as well as the Tibetan plateau. Their range covers 12 countries – Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Snow leopards typically inhabit rugged terrain such as steep slopes with bluffs, ridges broken by outcrops, and valleys interrupted by cliffs, with arid and semi-arid shrublands and grasslands.

They live at altitudes between 3000 – 4500 m (9800 – 14,800′) but has also been known to go above 5500 m (18,000′) in the Himalaya in summer.
In Mongolia and on the Tibetan Plateau, the snow leopard can be found in flat country, especially if rock ridges and ledges provide protective travel routes, and outcrops provide sufficient cover. During winter it will often descend to lower elevations in search of prey, but in summer it moves back up the mountain to the steepest and most remote terrain.

Some parts of its range, such as the massifs of the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, Tibet’s Chang Tang, and the northern rim of Ladoga, are virtually devoid of vegetation.

Birth Season – Mating usually occurs between late January and mid–March. Gestation period is between 13 and 15 weeks. Births usually occur in June or July and litters size can vary from 1 – 5 but usually 2 – 3. The cubs will open their eyes when they are about 7-9 days old.

Cubs Melb Zoo. Photo Adian Howard.

Cubs Melb Zoo. Photo Adian Howard.

Early Development – The cubs eat their first solid food when they are about 2 months old, and 2-3 months later begin to follow their mother when she goes hunting. They learn to hunt with the mother at least through their first winter and then leave the mother at 18 – 22 months of age. The young siblings might remain together briefly but then each will go its separate way.

Maximum reproductive age -some snow leopards have reproduced up to 15 years in captivity.
Maximum age – snow leopards have been known to live up to 21 years in captivity. In the wild however they will only live to about 9 or 10 yrs. 

Himalayan marmots greeting. Photo Wikipedia

Himalayan marmots greeting. Photo Wikipedia

Diet -what’s to eat up here? –Biologist researchers like George Schaller have shown that snow leopards prey on whatever ungulates (that is sheep and goats) are available from wild pigs and markhor with their twisted horns to Himalayan tahrs,  takins, and argalis. In Mongolia they also prey on wild Bactrian camels and gazelles. However, their staple prey, without which they could not survive in most areas, consists of blue sheep and ibex.

Markhor. Wikipedia photo

Markhor. Wikipedia photo

They will also eat marmots, a small mammal that looks a little like a cross between a meerkat and a rabbit. Until recently not much was known about specific diet but studies have shown blue sheep and marmots as the most important prey in summer, supplemented with deer, hares and an occasional bird.
Snow leopards will also prey on livestock where it is not well protected. Other research suggests an adult snow leopard might need 20 – 30 adult blue sheep annually and kill a large prey animal every 10 – 15 days. When a snow leopard kills a large animal like an ibex it may take it many days to eat it.
Behavior -Snow leopards seem to be very adaptive as studies show in Nepal they’re generally crepuscular, that is, active around dawn until about 10 o’clock and then again in the late afternoon and evening. In Ladakh, in northern India, however, it seems the animal is more nocturnal because here it has to survive largely on domestic livestock and therefore needs to be wary of human retribution.

The big cat that doesn’t roar. Snow leopards can’t roar because of their different vocal chords. Most zoo keepers working with the snow leopard use the word “prusten” for the sound the cat makes. It’s a German word meaning to puff and to blow. It’s a soft sound snow leopards make to each other and sometimes to keepers. In the wild they use it to communicate when meeting for mating. Some people also call it “chuffing”. See video of snow leopard Hercules from Big Cat rescue doing his “chuffing” talk to keepers. Video is called Snow Leopard Hello!

The National Geographic web page on snow leopards has an audio file where you can hear the sound a snow leopard makes. Check it out here

Snow leopards Uncia Uncia

Snow leopards Uncia Uncia

A cat in a league of its own. While snow leopards share part of their name with the true leopard, scientists have come to the conclusion that the two aren’t closely related. The difference is in the skull structure of the snow leopard as well as the fact that their vocal chords are underdeveloped and they can’t roar like other big cats. Snow leopards have now been classified alone in the Uncia genus.

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8 Responses to About snow leopards

  1. faisalsoofi says:

    thankyou for putting all this information here, snowleopards are truly awesome creatures…..hats off to all those trying to save them and their habitat, we need them both

    • Sibylle says:

      and thanks for your support too. It will take a big collaborative effort to save these guys, their habitat and help the people who share their habitat too.

  2. Darren says:

    The information provided here is completely amazing. If possible I would love some reccomedations on great books concerning Snow Leopards. Photography is the main aspect of what I’m looking for.

  3. Sibylle says:

    thanks Darren, I’m glad you are interested in snow leopards. A lot of people specialise in photographing them in Zoos – see Steve Tracy on the Snow Leopard Trust website – http://www.snowleopard.org. He lives in Tokyo and the zoo there has a big breeding program and this website has lots of photos. In terms of books, there’s a new one by Sy Montgomery “Saving the Ghost of the mountains – an expedition among snow leopards in Mongolia”. Of course its hard to get pics of snow leopards in the wild but this book has some. I will be doing some posts on this book soon as I’m interviewing Sy at present,

  4. Sibylle says:

    Darren, other books on snow leopards are-
    George Schaller “Stones of Silence – Journeys in the Himalaya” photos of landscape and first photo of wild snow leopard ever!
    Darla Hillard “Vanishing tracks – 4 yrs among the snow leopards of Nepal” – first ever wild captured snow leopards for radio collaring. A few photos.
    Peter Matthiessen “The Snow Leopard” – lovely book about his journey but no photos.
    Helen Freeman “Life, laughter and the pursuit of snow leopards”- Helen’s story of starting up the Snow Leopard Trust. No photos.
    Hope this helps.

  5. […] Apple Mac Snow Leopard OS sweeps the world! OS users visiting this blog will be interested to learn why the snow leopard in the wild is a unique and endangered animal. (Find out why.) […]

  6. robert wragg says:

    I was at the zoo a couple of weeks before read about the unfortunate deaths of the cubs and i thiught what beautiful creatures they are,

    I am glad that i took some photos of the cubs and they parents and will treasure them next to the tigers which my favourite animals these have got to be the next it is a crying shame such creatures are killed for they beautiful coats and i am glad that people like you at the zoo are to look after them. Carry on the good work you do and hopefully will see you next year.

  7. lanza!!!! i luv snow leopards says:

    hi i just have to say i love snow leopards they really are a beutiful animal when i see a photo of them my mind goes into the most peacfull state and makes me feel like i am in a state of mind wer ther is only peace love and harmony and yes i no that they are carnivores an all but when i look at one of them oh no its just to hard to explain any ways SAVE THE SNOW LEOPARDS xxoo to the people doing that LANA

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