Animal Spotlight: Snow Leopard

Taxonomy:8fb0209ce531d37e68511f5d09ee98ed

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Felidae
  • Genus: Panthera
  • Species: uncia
  • Average Height: 1.8-2.2 ft (55-65 cm)
  • Average Body Length: 3-4 ft (0.9-1.2 m)
  • Average Tail Length: 2.5-3.4 ft (0.8-1 m)
  • Average Weight: 66-110 lbs (30-50 kg)
  • Average Lifespan: 10-20 years

These rare, beautiful gray leopards live in the mountains of Central Asia. The populations are extremely fragmented throughout the harsh, remote, mountainous regions, with the majority of snow leopards located in the Tibetan region of China. Generally found at elevations between 1,000 to 1,500 feet (3,000 to 4,500 meters), snow leopards thrive in the alpine and subalpine ecological zones where it frequents the steep terrain broken by cliffs, ridges, gullies, and rocky outcrops.

However, in some parts of Mongolia and on the Tibetan Plateau, they occur in relatively less precipitous landscape, especially if there are suitable travel routes along ridges and where sufficient cover is found. In the mountains of Russia and parts of Tian Shan, the snow leopard occurs in open coniferous forests, generally avoiding dense forests.

A snow leopard’s’ range accompanies 12 countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Physical Description:

IMST-00025904-001The beautiful snow leopard’s coat is a white to smokey-gray color, with yellow-tinged fur and patterned dark-gray to black rosettes and spots, giving the cat the perfect camouflage for its mountain environment. Its head, neck, and limbs are black-spotted and two dark lines extend from the neck to the tail. Its short rounded ears are set wide apart and the backsides of the ears are black with a light center. Having round and short ears help in reducing heat loss. The snow leopard normally has light green or gray eyes.

Other than its coat, the snow leopard has many adaptations for its cold habitat. Long body hair and thick, wooly belly fur helps the individual to retain its body heat during the extreme cold. The short forelimbs and long hind limbs enable this leopard to be particularly agile in its steep and rugged habitat. Its large paws, like natural snowshoes, also allow for the cat to walk across the snow without sinking from its weight.

Furthermore, the snow leopard has a well-developed chest and an enlarged nasal cavity that warms the cold air as it breathes in the low-oxygen high altitude conditions. Its long, thick tail is about 75-90% of the total body length and is thought to help maintain balance on the steep slopes.

Overall, the features of the snow leopard allow the feline to survival in the frigid cold where most are unable to survive.

Diet:

Snow leopards are opportunistic predators, willing to eat any prey they come across. Their preferred prey consists mainly of wild sheep and goats such as blue sheep, mountain ibex, markhor, argali, musk deer, and Himalayan tahr. Where available, it may supplement its diet with smaller prey of rodents, hares, and small game birds such as marmot, pika, hare, snowcock, and chukar partridge.

china-web-cat-2015
A snow leopard on the prowl in China. Credit: Shan Shui Conservation Center/Panthera/Snow Leopard Trust

However, with their prey disappearing across their range, snow leopards are also
feeding on domestic livestock. Snow leopards frequently prey upon the livestock and in some areas, this can be significant, constituting as much as 80% of the diet. Although, 15-30% is more common.

These cats will kill an average of one large animal twice a month.

Behavior:

Snow leopards are crepuscular, meaning that it is most active at dawn and dusk, just like most feline species.

Adults are solitary predators and despite occupying large territories, although the home ranges of males and females overlap extensively.  Home ranges of 18 GPS collared snow leopards in the South Gobi in Mongolia averaged 160 mi2 (408 km2) for males and 120 mi2 (308 km2). A female in Pakistan used a home range exceeding 390 mi2 (1,000 km2). However, in Nepal, home ranges were much smaller and varied from 4-15 mi2 (10-40 km2). As such home range sizes depend on the habitat availability and prey densities.

These cats, because of their solitary nature, communicate mostly through scent marking and scraping. The snow leopard’s vocal fold is less developed than in other felines in the Panthera genus, lacking a thick pad of fibro-elastic tissue. Therefore, it cannot make the low and intense “roars” like other bigs cats. However, they do yowl, most common is during breeding season when seeking a mate. Generally, snow leopards tend to move, bed, and mark along linear topographic features such as major ridgelines or the base or crest of broken cliffs.

Mating season, usually between early January to mid-March, is the only time that individuals will interact. Most births will occur in May to June after a gestation period of 3 to 3.5 months in rocky dens lined with the female’s’ fur.  Usually a litter size is two to three cubs, but recently, a location camera taped a mother with quadruplets.

During the first few months, the young will follow their mother on hunts and remain with her during their first mother. After 18 to 22 months or about two years old, cubs will begin to disperse and find their own territories, becoming independent from their mother. In the early stages of independence, sibling groups may remain together briefly. The record for the oldest reproductive success in captivity is reported to be a 15 year old for a female.

Threats:

On the IUCN Red List, the snow leopard is classified as “endangered”. Furthermore, the species is also listed on Appendix I of CITES and Appendix II on the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). The cat is fully protected across its entire range. Of the twelve snow leopard range states, only Tajikistan has yet to join CITES. However, it is expected that the state will be added to the conservation group in 2014.

Its population is believed to have declined by 20% over the past two decades. Major threats include habitat and prey base loss, poaching and persecution., illegal trade, conflict with local people, and lack of conservation capacity, policy, and awareness. The Snow Leopard Survival Strategy assessed primary threats by region as follows:

In the Himalayan region, also known as the Tibetan Plateau and southern China, India, Nepal, and Bhutan, the biggest threat is the reduction of natural prey. Thi is due to competition with livestock, killing of snow leopards in retribution for livestock depredation, lack of trans-boundary cooperation, military activity, and human population growth.

0bd211e553b88ab1c776d122cd913184In the Karakorum and Hindu Kush region, which is made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and southwest China, snow leopards face habitat degradation and fragmentation, reduction or natural prey due to illegal hunting, killing of snow leopards in retribution for livestock depredation, lack of effective law enforcement, lack of institutional capacity and awareness among local people and policy makers, as well as human population growth.

Snow leopards in the commonwealth of Independent States (former Russian republics which includes Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan) and western China (Xinjiang province) face threats such as reduction of natural prey due to illegal hunting, poaching for their hides or bones, lack of trans-boundary cooperation, military activity, and human population growth. Losses to poaching were most severe in this region in the 1990s. Since then, conditions have improved.

In the northern range of Russia, Mongolia, and Altai and Tien Shan of China, snow leopards are poached for their hides and bones. Their survival is also threatened by the lack of appropriate policy and effective enforcement, lack of institutional capacity and awareness among local people and policy makers, and human population growth.

Overall, poaching and illegal trade is likely to continue in large parts of snow leopard range given the growing demand from China. Furthermore, over-stocking of the fragile high-altitude grasslands with domestic livestock is widespread throughout snow leopard range, leading to not only a decline in the wild prey base but also an increase in retributive killing when the felines begin to target domestic livestock for food. Conflict and competition with local communities is amongst the most important and devastating threats to the species across its entire range.

Poaching for illegal trade is also a significant threat. Pelts appear to be the main snow leopard produce in demand, but there is also evidence of demand for live animals for zoos and circuses. Other body parts found in trade include bones, used especially in Chinese medicine as a substitute for tiger bone, as well as claws, meat, and sexual organs of male cats. Illegal trade increased in the 1990s in the economically depressed, newly independent Central Asian states that emerged from dissolution of the Soviet Union. Illegal trade appears to be rapidly increasing with China’s growing economic power, particularly in neighboring Mongolia and in Afghanistan, a new market has emerged which is difficult to police due to ongoing military conflict.

snow-leoaprd-skins-580

Human population growth, poverty, lack of institutional capacity, need for trans-boundary cooperation, and the general lack of awareness of both local and national levels for the need to protect the snow leopard all hinder conservation efforts. Military conflicts, which occur across parts of its range, also causes damage to wildlife, threatening conservation efforts.

Conservation:

The International Snow Leopard Trust and the Snow Leopard Conservancy are the world’s two leading organizations dedicated specifically to conserving this endangered species. Both organizations have developed a multifaceted approach to the conservation of this species: involving research and data storage, educational initiatives, community-based conservation, and the protection of livestock to prevent retributive killing of snow leopards. Emphasis is also placed on local people to be involved in various initiatives and there are plans to link fragmented populations by habitat corridors, which may improve the chances of the long-term survival of this secretive and critically endangered cat.

Furthermore, the Snow Leopard Network was established to unite individuals and organizations for better cooperation and information sharing and to help implement the Snow Leopard Survival Strategy. The International Conference on Range-wide Conservation Planning for Snow Leopards held in Beijing in 2008 brought together experts to improve the knowledge base. Important areas for snow leopard conservation were identified and a framework for the development of national action plans were provided.

afghanistan-1
Awareness program in a remote village in Afghanistan. Via Global Snow Leopard

As part of the 2013 Global Snow Leopard Forum in Bishkek, all range countries developed National Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Priorities (NSLEP). These are summarized in the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Priorities (GSLEP) document.

Many of the range countries, as part of their own internal national exercises, have developed official Snow Leopard Action Plans or Strategies. Some have been officially approved, while others have awaited approval for varying lengths of time. Several of these country specific plans are available in the online library of the Snow Leopard Network. Countries with formally adopted action plans include India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan and Russia, while Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have plans drafted that have yet to be adopted by the government.

Beside these efforts, there is still a need for building more conservation capacity, strengthening international cooperation, developing range states’ national legislation and improving law enforcement to prohibit killing and trading of snow leopards or their body parts. Detailed information about abundance and status of snow leopards is still limited mostly due to its elusive behaviour, low population densities and rugged mountain habitat difficult to access. Therefore long term studies and further investigations are needed.

In addition, about 200 protected areas are thought to contain snow leopards with a combined area in excess of 1.3 million km2. However, nearly 40% of the protected areas are less than 500 km2 and likely contain only a few breeding pairs. Most are inhabited by people and livestock, and not all have management plans. It is therefore important to improve protected area design and management in respect for the needs of snow leopards, and to enhance snow leopard conservation outside protected areas.

snow-leopard

On multiple occasions, the snow leopard has been featured in conservation news this year. This includes an analysis that investigates retribution killinga study that argues that there is not enough large suitable habitat for individual populations to surviveand another study that identifies the effects of climate change to snow leopard territories.

Interesting Facts

  • The snow leopard was voted as #8 popular animal by Arkive
  • This cat is a long-jumper, jumping distances of up to 50 feet or 15 meters
  • Its long and thick tail is long enough to be wrapped around the snow leopard’s body for warmth
  • Snow leopards are capable of killing prey up to three times their own weight.
  • The previous genus name, before being placed in the genus Panthera, Uncia is derived from the Old French word once, which was originally used for the European lynx. In certain regions, the snow leopard is still occasionally called “ounce”.
  • One Indian snow leopard, protected and observed in a national park, is reported to have consumed five blue sheep, nine Tibetan woolly hares, twenty-five marmots, five domestic goats, one domestic sheep, and fifteen birds in a single year.
  • After genetic analysis in 2006, the snow leopard was placed into the genus Panthera. There, it is most closely related to the tiger, having diverged over two million years ago, although the relative positions of these two species within the genus have not yet been established with confidence.
  • McCarthy et. al. (2003) have classically described two subspecies ut genetic analysis of intraspecific variation in the snow leopard has not yet been done.
  • Snow leopard fur was once highly prized in the international fashion trade and around 1,000 pelts were traded annually in the 1920s.

References + For More Reading

Arkive: Snow Leopard

BBC Nature: Snow Leopard

Cat Specialist Group: Snow leopard (Panthera uncia)

Snow Leopard Trust: Snow Leopard Basic Facts

WWF: Snow Leopard

NatGeo: Snow Leopard

Defenders: Snow Leopard

IUCN: Panthera uncia (Snow Leopard)

Snow Leopard Survival Strategy (2014)

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