The Snow Leopard Panthera uncia is an endangered medium to large sized cat.
Restricted to the alpine and sub-alpine areas of central Asia, this cat requires extensive home ranges to survive. Carrying capacity for prey animals is severely restricted and further impacted on by the grazing of domestic livestock. Snow Leopards fall prey to poaching and retribution killings as they are increasingly marginalised by the ever increasing, expanding and fractious human population.
The Snow Leopard shares a common ancestry (6 – 10 million years old) with the Tiger P. tigris, Lion P. leo, Jaguar P. onca, Leopard P. pardus, Bornean Clouded Leopard Neofelis diardi and Clouded Leopard N. nebulosa (The Clouded Leopard is basal to this group).
Fossil records date the emergence of Panthera in Asia between 2 and 3.8 million years ago. Most authors of larger canonical type works continue to place the Snow Leopard in its own genus Uncia, but this will change based on genetic analysis. Further mtDNA sequencing has also shown that the Snow Leopard and Lion P. leo are sister species rather than the Leopard P. pardus or Tiger P. tigris as previously thought.
Snow Leopards are medium to larg- sized cats weighing between 27 and 54 kilograms. Body length measures 74 – 130 centimetres, with their tail measuring a similar length. Snow Leopards have long thick fur, the base colour varying between smoky grey and yellowish tan with a white belly. They have grey to black open rosettes on their body with small spots of the same colour on their heads with larger spots on their legs and tail.
Snow Leopards are well adapted for mountain life exhibiting a well developed chest and short forelimbs with large, wide paws. The paws have fur on their underside to increase traction on steep, unstable surfaces. They have long hind legs for leaping as well a long flexible tail for balance. They are equally well protected from cold conditions by having a stocky body with small, rounded ears and an enlarged nasal cavity. Long body fur with a woolly undergrowth combined with a thick furry tail that can be wrapped around the face all aid in minimising heat loss.
The Snow Leopard is unable to roar despite possessing an incomplete ossification of the hyoid bone. This feature was previously believed to be essential in allowing cats to roar. Recent observations suggest that the ability to roar is primarily related to other morphological features, especially parts of the larynx which are absent in the Snow Leopard.
A number of captive bred snow leopards have suffered from multiple ocular colobomas. The exact etiology of this congenital malformation remains unclear.
The Snow Leopard is found within a geographic area of approximately 1.8 million km² (550 000km² is considered prime habitat) covering the following twelve countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China (including Tibet [Xizang]), India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan.
The area is broadly defined as stretching from the Hindukush in eastern Afghanistan and Syr Darya through the mountains of Pamir Tien Shan, Karakorum, Kashmir, Kunlun and the Himalaya to southern Siberia where the range covers the Russian Altai, Sajan, Tannu-Ola mountains and to the mountains west of Lake Baikal. In Mongolia it is found in the Mongolian and Gobi Altai as well as the Khangai mountains. In Tibet it is found up to the Altyn-Tagh in the north.
The estimated wild population of the Snow Leopard is between 4080 and 6590 individuals, the effective population numbering only 2500 individuals. There are between 600 and 700 individuals contained with zoos.
The entire population is divided between the following 12 countries :
Afghanistan: 100 - 200
Bhutan: 100 - 200
China: 2000 - 2500
India: 200 - 600
Kazakhstan: 180 - 200
Kyrgyzstan: 150 - 500
Mongolia: 500 - 1000
Nepal: 300 - 500
Pakistan: 200 - 420
Russia: 150 - 200
Tajikistan: 180 - 220
Uzbekistan: 20 - 50
Habitat and Ecology
Snow Leopards are closely associated with the alpine and sub-alpine ecological zones, favouring steep terrain well broken by cliffs, ridges, gullies and rocky outcrops. They are known to occupy relatively flat or rolling terrain within Mongolia and the Tibetan plateau of China. They are also to be found within the coniferous forests of the Sayan mountains of Russia and the Tien Shan range of China. They generally occur at elevations of 3000 – 4500 meters, but are also found at much lower altitudes of between 900 – 2500 meters at their northern range limit.
Home ranges overlap widely between sexes and can vary from 10 – 40 km² under productive habitat conditions such as those found in Nepal. In Mongolia, where terrain is relatively open with low ungulate prey densities, ranges are considerably larger – up to 140 km². Unlike most other large cats, Snow Leopards are not known to defend their territories aggressively.
Prey is limited to a small number of regionally occurring ungulates, principally Bharal Pseudois nayaur, Siberian Ibex Capra sibirica, Markhor Capra falconeri, Himalayan Tahr Hemitragus jemlahicus, Musk Deer Moschus chrysogaster as well as marmot Marmota spp, pika Ochotona spp, hares Lepus spp, deer, boar, small rodents and game birds. Considerable predation is reported on domestic livestock where human populations have encroached with domestic livestock. Annual prey requirements are estimated at 20 - 30 Bharal, a kill every 10 – 15 days. Snow Leopards are slow eaters, with individuals remaining on a kill for up to a week.
Snow Leopard predation on livestock can be severe in some areas regardless of livestock / wild ungulate abundance rations. Comparative studies in central India found that livestock made up between 40 and 58% of dietary requirements, even when livestock / wild ungulate ratios were vastly different.
Snow Leopards are crepuscular in nature. They are particularly well camouflaged, shy and elusive. They are rarely seen in the wild, even by herders who share their habitat. Snow Leopard typically travel along ridge-lines and cliff bases choosing bedding sites near cliffs or ridges with good views over the surrounding terrain. Radio collar studies indicate that they usually remain in a particular area for a few days before moving to another part of their range. They can cover vast distances in a single night, up to 40 kilometres in the Mongolian deserts.
As opposed to other Panthera species, the Snow Leopard is not regarded as dangerous or aggressive to humans. There are no known incidences of attack even under normally stressful conditions around kills and offspring. Communication is predominantly indirect with boundaries being marked by scrapes, faeces and urine spraying (usually of overhanging rocks). They also make audible yelps and prusten. Oestrus females are known to make a continuous yelping sound lasting day and night if required to attract males.
The breeding season lasts from January to mid March. As with other members of the Panthera genus (with the exception of Lions), males spend only enough time with females to mate before resuming a solitary lifestyle. Gestation lasts from 93 – 100 days, cubs being born in June and July. Litters typically contain 2 – 3 cubs although captive animals have given birth to as many as 7 cubs. Cubs are helpless at birth, opening their eyes after approximately seven days. Cubs start eating solid food at two months and are following their mothers on hunting trips after three months. Independence is reached between 18 – 22 months.
Females reach sexual maturity at 2 – 3 years old while males take up to 4 years. Females mate every alternate year due to the time taken for cubs to reach maturity. It is thought that Snow Leopards live for between 10 and 15 years with captive individuals having lived for up to 21 years.
Homo sapiens provides the most singularly destructive threat to the continued survival of the Snow Leopard. Incidental numbers of the cat are thought to die as a result of avalanches, the harsh environment and occasional falls.
Snow Leopards are hunted illegally for their pelts, bones and body parts (particularly the penis). Pelts are sought after in Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia for the garment trade. Bones and other body parts are used in traditional Asian medicine as a replacement for those of the Tiger P. tigris. They are also captured for the pet trade within Central Asia. Typical of poaching world wide, the poachers are normally economically poor, local people who provide pelts and cats to richer individuals / syndicates to subsidise there meagre income.
The farming of domestic animals normally leads to the development of areas devoid or depleted of naturally occurring ungulate prey. Snow Leopards being opportunistic predators will prey on domestic animals if and when required. Poverty is common within the cats distribution, most countries being classified as rurally orientated third world economies. Herders within the cat’s distribution live precarious lives, with their economy tied to their herds. The loss of any livestock can cause economic hardship and herders often retaliate by trapping, poisoning or shooting the cats.
Retribution killings have been negated to some extent by effective incentive programs. However, such programs have tended to be costly and cover small, limited areas thereby reducing their effectiveness.
Habitat and Prey Loss
The expansion of grazing areas due to the increase in the human population has put ever more strain on an already fragile biome. The increased numbers of livestock further degrade the habitat leading to a proportional depletion of naturally occurring ungulates. The legal and illegal hunting of these wild ungulates has further depleted the wild prey available to Snow Leopards. This becomes a cyclical relationship of decreased prey options, increased predation on domestic livestock followed by increased retribution killings.
Snow Leopards have made a recent return to Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal after an estimated absence of 40 years. It is thought that this is as a direct result of the recovery of the Himalayan Tahr H. jemlahicus and Musk Deer M. chrysogaster population.
Lack of awareness, policy and implementation
There is a lack of effective conservation without the support of the local people and herders within the cat’s home range. Until there is an economic benefit to protecting Snow Leopards, the local people are unlikely to alter their current lifestyles and practices. Similarly, many of the countries in which the Snow Leopard lives are developing economies with high levels of poverty. Governments within the region spend what resources they do have on the provision of basic services to their human population, military security and war rather than conservation or environmental policy.
Political instability and war continues as it has historically to involve most of countries within the Snow Leopards distribution. This leads to problems in effective policing and protection of conservation areas, never mind having to deal with remote, uncompromising and difficult terrain. Most National parks and protected areas are simply too small to offer much protection to the wide ranging Snow Leopards.
The Snow Leopard has been listed as ENDANGERED on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species since 1986. The Snow Leopard population is estimated to have declined by at least 20% over the last two generations (16 years). Snow Leopards are protected by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (C.I.T.E.S) legislation which makes it illegal to transport any part/s of the cat over international borders (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are not yet signatories). The importation of a hide into the USA is punishable by a fine of up to US$25 000 while Nepal imposes more stringent penalties of between 5 and 15 years imprisonment for any forms of illegal trade in the cat.
The Snow Leopard Trust plays an active role in reducing conflict between herders and Snow Leopards through education and economic incentives in return for a commitment to conservation.
Chitral Gol National Park
Khunjerab National Park
Sagarmatha National Park
Shey-Phoksundo National Park
Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve
Annapurna Conservation Area
Oomolangma National Nature Reserve
Tumor Feng Nature Reserve
Jigme Dorji National Park
Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park
Ubsunur Hollow, territorial border with the Republic of Tuva
- Ale, S. B., Yonzon, P. & Thapa, K. (2006). Recovery of the snow leopard Uncia uncia in Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) National Park, Nepal. Oryx, Vol. 41 No. 1 January 2007.
- Bagchi, S. & Mishra, C. (2005). Living with large carnivores: predation on livestock by the snow leopard (Uncia uncia). Journal of Zoology (2006), London.
- Barnett, K. C. & Lewis, J. C. M. (2002). Multiple ocular colobomas in the snow leopard (Unica uncia). Veterinary Ophthalmology (2002), Vol. 5, No. 3, pages 197-199.
- Fox, J. L. (1994). Snow Leopard conservation in the wild - a comprehensive perspective on a low density and highly fragmented population. Proceedings of the seventh International Snow Leopard Symposium, Seattle, WA, USA.
- Jackson, R., Mallon, D., McCarthy, T., Chundaway, R.A. and Habib, B. (2008). Panthera uncia. 2011 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.2.
- Johnston, L. A., Armstrong, D. L. & Brown, J. L. (1994). Seasonal effects on seminal and endocrine traits in the captive snow leopard (Panthera uncia). Journal of Reproduction and Fertility (1994) Vol. 102, pages 229-236.
- Lovari, S., Boesi, R., Minder, I., Mucci, N., Randi, E., Dematteis, A. & Ale, S. B. (2009). Restoring a keystone predator may endanger a prey species in a human-altered ecosystem: the return of the snow leopard to Sagarmatha National Park. Animal Conservation, Vol. 12, pages 559-570.
- McCarthy, K. P., Fuller, T. K., Ming, M., McCarthy, T. M., Waits, L. & Jumabaev, K. (2008). Assessing estimators of Snow Leopard abundance. The Journal of Wildlife Management, Volume 72(8), pages 1826-1833.
- Mishra, C., Allen, P., McCarthy, T., Madhusudan, M. D., Bayarjargal, A. & Prins, H. H. T. (2003). The role of incentive programs in conserving the Snow Leopard. Conservation Biology Vol. 17 No. 6, December 2003, pages 1512-1520.
- Oli, M. K., Taylor, I. R. & Rogers, M. E. (1993). Snow Leopard Panthera uncia predation of livestock: an assessment of local perceptions in the Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal. Biological Conservation Vol. 68 (1994), pages 63-68.
- Schmidt, A. M., Hess, D. L., Schmidt, M. J. & Lewis, C. R. (1993). Serum concentrations of oestradiol and progesterone and frequency of sexual behaviour during the normal oestrous cycle in the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). Journal of Reproduction and Fertility (1993) 98, 91-95.
- Snow Leopard Network. (2005). Camera Trapping of snow leopards in the Muzat Valley.
- Wei, L., Wu, X. and Jiang, Z. (2008). The Complete mitochondrial genome structure of the snow leopard, Panthera unicia. Springer Science and Business Media.
- Wozencraft, W.C. (2005). Wilson, D.E. and Reeder, D.M. (Eds). Mammal Species of the World (3rd Ed). Johns Hopkins University Press.