With its pale green eyes and exotically marked fur, the snow leopard is one of the most beautiful cat species.
- Scientific Designation: Uncia uncia
- Related Project: Snow Leopards in Mongolia
- Endangered Status: Vulnerable (VU)
- Lifespan: Up to 21 years
- Weight: 25-75 kg
- Length: 1.2-1.5 m
- Tail Length: 91 cm
Approximately the same size as the common leopard, the snow leopard is a stocky cat with a well-developed chest, long body, and moderately long legs. The snow leopard’s massive front paws are larger than the hind ones. The cat is strong, muscular, and built low to the ground. Large nasal cavities allow the snow leopard to breathe easier at high altitudes, where both the temperatures and oxygen are low. The snow leopard has a thick, bushy tail (used for balancing) that measures from 75-90 percent of the head-body length.
The background color of the snow leopard’s fur is smoky gray, varying to grayish buff with whitish underparts. Black spots mark the head, neck, and lower limbs, whereas the flanks, back, and tail are covered with rosettes or irregular circles. An individual snow leopard can be identified by its unique markings. The fur is long, as insulation is important for survival in subzero temperatures. In addition, the large paws are well suited for gripping rocky inclines and for “snowshoeing” through deep, soft snow.
Interestingly, the snow leopard is one of the least aggressive of the large cats. Primarily a terrestrial hunter, the snow leopard is mainly active at dawn and dusk, traveling across the open terrain of desert and steppe to hunt. The species feeds on bharal (blue sheep), ibex, urial and argali sheep, markhor, smaller mammal prey, and domestic animals. It will also ingest grasses and twigs, possibly as a digestive aid or laxative. Overall, the snow leopard is more inclined to chase prey than other large cats, using agility when pursuing its prey across slopes or down mountainsides. Like most cats, the snow leopard is solitary and communicates by scent marking.
The snow leopard’s distribution lies in the high mountain regions of central Asia, ranging from 600 to nearly 5,800 meters. The species is a rock specialist and is usually found in rugged areas where the terrain is broken by cliffs, ridges, and ravines.
Distribution map courtesy of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), compiled in 2017 by Panthera, Wildlife Conservation Society, Snow Leopard Trust, and the Snow Leopard Network.
Threats to the Snow Leopard
In the wild, the snow leopard is rare and lives in low densities. It is estimated that only 3,500 to 7,500 individuals exist in the wild. Threats to the snow leopard are numerous. One of the major of these threats is retaliatory killing by livestock owners. This cycle begins when large ungulates (wild sheep and goats, the snow leopard’s native prey) are depleted by hunting in areas of the high Central Asian mountains. Without these prey, the snow leopard naturally turns to domesticated livestock for food. As a consequence, the snow leopards are hunted and killed by the livestock owners.
In addition to loss of prey and retaliatory killing, snow leopards are in danger from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), where snow leopard bone is used as a substitute for tiger bone, and from hunting for fur. The snow leopard is classified as Vulnerable (VU) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and protected under appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
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