Ghost of the mountains
No one knows how many snow leopards are out there, because less than three per cent of the snow leopard’s range has been systematically surveyed. However, most conservationists believe the population to number as few as 4,000 animals spread across 1.8 million square kilometres and 12 countries in south and central Asia – and the population is on the decline; snow leopards are already disappearing from certain parts of their range.
Snow leopards require large spaces to roam; the range of a single animal will often span several national borders. They prefer to live in alpine landscapes dominated by cliffs, rocky outcrops, gullies and vegetation mostly made up of shrubs and grasses. The highest part of their range is usually between 3,000 and 5,000 metres above sea level, while at their northern range limit, they can be found at altitudes as low as 900 metres above sea level.
Life in the wildSnow leopards have adapted over generations to live in harsh, mountainous environments at altitudes of up to 5,500 metres above sea level. Their enlarged nasal cavity helps them breathe the bitterly cold, thin air, while their long, dense and woolly hair keeps them warm in extremely cold mountain climates. Their snow shoe-like paws enable them to walk in deep snow without sinking, and their shortened limbs, long tails and well-developed chest muscles facilitate walking, leaping and stalking prey in steep and rugged terrain. They can be easily differentiated from other leopards by their thick, long tails. Snow leopards’ smoky-gray fur coat blends perfectly with the rocky slopes of their home, making them practically invisible.
Snow leopards lead a solitary life, except during mating season, which usually occurs between late January and mid-March. One to five cubs are born after a gestation period of three to four months, generally in June or July. Snow leopards mark their territories with signs such as scrapes, feces, scent sprays and claw rakings. As opportunistic predators, they can kill prey up to three times their own weight. They also feed on small prey such as pika, marmot, hares and game birds. Wild sheep and goats including blue sheep, Asian ibex, markhor, argali sheep and Himalayan tahr are their preferred food species. Adult snow leopards kill large prey every 10 to 15 days and their annual food requirement is about 20 to 30 blue sheep or 12 to 15 ibex. Livestock such as goats, sheep, young yak and horse also contribute to the snow leopard’s diet.
Why do snow leopards matter?
Snow leopards are considered a barometer of the health of the mountain ecosystem because of their wide range and position at the top of the food chain. The mountains where snow leopards live provide water to much of Central Asia, so the conservation of their habitat plays a role in ensuring water security for the region. According to one estimate, over 330 million people live within 10 kilometres of a river that originates in snow leopard habitat.
- As a flagship species of High Asia with territory spanning many countries, snow leopards are true environmental ambassadors with the potential to bring together various range states to act collectively for conservation across one of the most ecologically fragile landscapes on the planet.
- The snow leopard’s range includes world-class trekking and tourism destinations. Promotion of eco-tourism in these areas offers extraordinary opportunities to benefit some of the world’s poorest communities.
What's being done at the international level?To address both ongoing and emerging threats and seize the enormous opportunity to address current and future environmental issues in High Asia, snow leopard range countries pledged to work together through the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) in the “Bishkek Declaration” of 2013. GSLEP is the only focused program for cohesive action to secure a future for snow leopards across their entire range (GSLEP 2013). By garnering much needed political support and providing technical and financial assistance, GSLEP hopes to secure 20 landscapes across the big cat’s range by 2020.
What is WWF doing?
WWF has been supporting snow leopard conservation initiatives for years, working on the ground in most snow leopard range countries. Of the 20 global landscapes identified by GSLEP, WWF has ongoing snow leopard programs in 14.WWF is currently engaged in:
- Training and equipping front-line personnel to implement cutting-edge science and technology for understanding snow leopard ecology and behaviour.
- Landscape planning and management to mitigate the threats of macro-economic development and climate change at the landscape level.
- Scaling up community-based approaches to snow leopard-friendly animal husbandry to the landscape and policy levels by building on the extensive knowledge of successful models already available.
- Addressing the poaching of snow leopards through building wildlife management capacity and community engagement in snow leopard conservation at scale across landscapes.
- Stopping the trafficking of snow leopards and reducing demand for their parts.
- Advocating for the effective implementation of GSLEP by range country governments, and maintaining a high level of political support for snow leopard conservation.
In Canada, WWF is currently supporting snow leopard research and preparation of climate-integrated landscape management planning in the western snow leopard landscape of Nepal.
Snow Leopard Basics
Common name: Snow Leopard
Population: 4,000 to 6,500 individuals
Weight: 45 – 55 kg
Height: Approx. 60 cm (at shoulder)
Length: Approx. 2 metres including tail
Hunting and retaliatory killing
Snow leopards are hunted for their bones to be used in Asian medicine and fur to be worn as a status symbol. In addition, snow leopards are killed by local farmers in retaliation for attacks on livestock such as sheep, goats, horses and yak calves. Including both poaching and retaliatory killing, TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, and WWF report that an average of one snow leopard is killed each day.
Until recently, much of the snow leopard’s habitat was inaccessible and thus protected from development pressures. However, thanks to the construction of new roads, growing human populations, increased mining operations and the opening of major infrastructure pathways through these habitats, this is starting to change, and fast. In addition, snow leopards are estimated to lose more than a third of their territory as the climate gets warmer and wetter. This is because snow leopards live in the zone between the tree line and the snow line on the mountains. As the Earth warms, tree lines are moving upwards and encroaching on snow leopards’ preferred habitats.
Reasons for hope
- Nepal has successfully fitted satellite GPS collars to four snow leopards. The data gathered contributed to the first ever climate-smart conservation plan for snow leopards in the Eastern Himalayas.
- Snow leopard biologists have been conducting the world’s most comprehensive long-term ecological study on snow leopards in the South Gobi region of Mongolia since 2009, using state-of-the-art techniques such as GPS tracking collars and remote sensing cameras. This study has led to several groundbreaking scientific findings and has produced unprecedented insights into the ecology and behavior of these endangered cats.
- Bhutan and Russia completed nationwide snow leopard population surveys in 2016. The findings revealed that Bhutan is home to 79 to 112 snow leopards, and 70 to 90 are found in Russia.
- In August of 2018, India launched a survey in Himanchal Pradesh, one of five Indian states with snow leopards.
Did you know?
- Snow leopards have pale green or gray eyes, highly unusual for cats.
- The snow leopard’s long, furry tail helps them balance when walking over steep, narrow ledges, and protects their noses and mouths from the harsh cold during winter.
- Snow leopards have enormous furry paws, which distribute their body weight more evenly across the snow, much like snowshoes.
- Unlike most other felines, snow leopards are unable to roar.
- The snow leopard is a non-aggressive animal that may choose to back away when threatened by another predator, leaving its well-earned kill to be finished by the invader.
- A snow leopard can jump as far as 15 metres and take down prey three times its own weight.
- The average female gives birth to a litter consisting of one to five cubs.