The beautiful snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is a white to smokey-grey colour, with yellow tinged fur and patterned dark-grey to black rosettes and spots (6). The snow leopard has many adaptations for its cold habitat; long body hair and thick, woolly belly fur, large paws and a well-developed chest and enlarged nasal cavity that warms the cold air as it is breathed in (6). The long, thick tail is almost a metre in length and is used for balance and as added insulation when wrapped around the body and face at rest (6). The short forelimbs and long hind limbs enable this leopard to be particularly agile in its steep and rugged habitat (6).
Also known as
Irbis, Léopard Des Neiges, Once, Panthère Des Neiges.
Adults are solitary, although the home ranges of males and females overlap extensively (7). Females reach sexual maturity at two to three years and the mating season runs from early January to mid-March, when long-drawn-out wailing calls can be heard echoing amongst the cliffs (7). Litter size is usually two to three cubs, which are born with black spots (7), and become independent from their mother at over two years old (3).
Most active at dawn and dusk, snow leopards are opportunistic predators capable of killing prey up to three times their own weight (3). Their prey consists mainly of wild sheep and goats, although livestock will also be taken, especially if wild prey has been depleted (3). These cats will kill an average of one large animal twice a month (6).
The natural prey of the snow leopard have been systematically hunted out of many areas of the high central Asian mountains and leopard numbers have declined as a result (3). Big cats often turn to domestic stock as an alternative source of food and this can incite retaliation from local farmers (3). Snow leopard fur was once highly prized in the international fashion world and around 1,000 pelts were traded a year in the 1920’s (3). A further threat to this species comes from the increasing demand for bones for traditional Oriental medicine (3).
Snow leopards are protected throughout most of their range and international trade is banned by their listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (5). The International Snow Leopard Trust and the Snow Leopard Conservancy are the world's two leading organizations dedicated specifically to conserving this endangered cat (6)(8). Both organisations 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 (6)(8). Local people are involved in various initiatives and there are plans to link fragmented populations by habitat corridors (3), which may improve the chances of the long-term survival of this secretive and critically endangered cat.
To learn more about a Whitley Award-winning conservation project for this species, click here.
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