Snow Leopard - Panthera uncia

IUCN Red List status - Endangered

The snow leopard is not as big as other cat species of the genus Panthera, but was added to this genus based on genetic analysis in 2007. Prior to this genetic-based new classification, this elusive cat species had its on genus 'Uncia'.

The home range of the snow leopard spans across the mountains in Central Asia and is estimated to cover 2 million km2. It goes across 12 countries and is mainly in an elavation of 3,000 - 4,500 metres, though this species may be found in lower regions
(900 - 2,500 metres) in northern parts of its territory. The habitat of snow leopards are rugged and steep mountains, which provide plenty of places to hide in cliffs, behind rocks and other typical features, these mountains provide. In Mongolia and Tibet the snow leopard can also be found in relatively flat or rolling terrain as long as these provide enough hiding spaces, and in the Sayan mountains in Russia as well as in parts of China the snow leopard may live even in coniferous forest; though never in dense forest.

According to the Snow Lepard Trust the wild snow leopard population is estimated to be 3,920 and 6,390
(the numbers given by the IUCN are slightly higher, but appear to be based on analysis from 2003). The highest proportion of the snow leopard population and also its home range is in China (population in China: 2,000 - 2,500 individuals; 60% of the entire home range is in China). The other home range countries are Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Comparing the estimated population number with the size of the entire home range for snow leopards is indicating a low population density and this is considered as a factor in the Endangered status.

The body of the snow leopard is adapted to live in the mountains. This cat species has short forelegs and longer hindlegs to enable it to move easily around the steep slopes. The long tail helps it to balance and also to keep warm through wrapping it around the faces when sleeping. Their long fur and woolly undercoat helps as well to keep the animal warm in the cold climate in the mountains, and the enlarged nasal cavity and extended chest capacity helps them to breathe the thin air in higher altitudes.

Like most of the big cat species the snow leopard is a solitary animal and most active during dusk and dawn. More than one snow leoppard can be seen together during the mating season
(late winter) and when a female raises her cubs. Most commonly a snow leopard will give birth to 2-3 cubs after a gestation period of 90 - 100 days. As for many wild animal species the survival rate of young snow leopards is relatively low and this has added in the case of the snow leopard to the decision to classify this big cat species as Engangered on the IUCN Red List. In addition to this the numbers of snow leopards is declining and the IUCN estimates that around 20% were lost over the last 16 years (over only 2 snow leopard generations).

Threats to the snow leopards include:
  • Poaching for their fur and bones,
  • Habitat loss and defragmentation due to the expansion of the human population and their livestock,
  • Loss of prey due to hunting and also their habitat loss,
  • Human/wildlife conflict as snow leopards will try to feed of livestock if they can't find natural prey species,
  • Military conflicts, which impact the snow leopard in some of their home range directly (through landmines and destruction of habitat) or indirectly (people trying to escape the conflict and moving into snow leopard habitat)
  • Ineffective protection as according to the Snow Leopard Trust, protected areas are too small to cover even the home range of one snow leopard.
Prey species of the snow leopard include mainly IBEX
(a goat species) and mountain sheep, but also smaller mammal species like hare and marmots and even birds.

The home range of snow leopards depend generally on prey availability and varies according to the IUCN also by region. In Nepal it may be only 10- 40km2 while in Mongolia it may be 140km2 and more. The Snow Leopard Trust states that the home range of a snow leopard may reach up to 1,000km2.

Other interesting facts about snow leopards are that snow leopards are not know to be aggressive towards humans and that they have been around for over 2 million years. According to the IUCN the snow leopard is most closely related to the tiger and diverged into a separate species probably at that time.

The information about snow leopards was sourced from the IUCN and the Snow Leopard Trust web pages