Snow Leopard, Uncia uncia
Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful cats, the snow leopard, or ounce, has a very soft and heavily spotted coat that is typically gray or yellowish gray marked with large, dark, mostly open gray rosettes. This coloration makes them almost invisible in the rocky slopes. Further adaptations for high-altitude life include long hair with dense, woolly underfur, an enlarged nasal cavity, shortened limbs (snow leopards stand only two feet tall at the shoulder) and well-developed chest muscles for climbing. The long tail is thought to aid in balance, and they often wrap their tails around themselves when resting for added warmth. Snow leopards weigh 60 to 100 pounds.
Through most of their range, snow leopards are associated with steep rocky slopes with arid and semi-arid shrubland, grassland or steppe vegetation. In the mountains of Russia and parts of the Tien Shan, they visit open coniferous forest along the edge of the snow line, but generally avoid dense forest. Snow leopards are generally found at elevations of 9,800 to 15,000 ft but occasionally go above 18,000 ft in the Himalayas. They occur as low as 3,000 ft in parts of Russia and Mongolia.
Snow leopards have a large but extremely patchy and fragmented distribution, consisting of a mix of long narrow mountain systems and islands of montane habitat scattered throughout a vast region surrounded by central Asian deserts and plateaus. Snow leopards range across 12 countries from central Russia, Mongolia, western China and Tibet, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Krgyzstan, and the Himalayan portions of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Nepal. Total range is believed to be about 772,000 square miles. This current range is only about 15% of its historic range.
Snow leopards are opportunistic predators capable of killing prey up to three times their own weight. Blue sheep, musk deer, ibex, marmots, hares, pikas and small birds are all possible prey.
Snow leopards are usually solitary cats. During breeding season, male and female snow leopard territories will overlap. Females can also be found with their cubs. Females become mature at just under three years of age, and after a gestation of 93 to 104 days, bear two to three young every other year. The young become independent after 18 to 22 months, although sibling groups may remain together briefly following independence. In captivity, snow leopards live for about 19 years, but in the wild, few are likely to reach 16 years.
Snow leopards are at home among rocky, mountain cliffs. Most active at dawn and dusk, they are able to jump up to 50 feet, which can be quite helpful leaping from rock to rock. Hidden among the rocks, a snow leopard moves in close to prey, often perching above it, before launching an attack. It kills prey with a bite to the throat or neck.
Threats to Survival:
Snow leopards are endangered for three main reasons. First of all, they are hunted for the illegal wildlife trade for their beautiful fur and for the demand of their bones in traditional Asian medicines. Secondly, depletion of its natural prey by hunting or overgrazing forces them to increase their feeding on domestic animals. Obviously, the herders do not want the leopards preying upon their livestock and will often kill snow leopards even if there is no proof that the leopard killed the livestock. Thirdly, there is habitat loss and defragmentation as the land is being converted for agricultural uses.
Snow leopards are listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and IUCN, and banned from international trade as an Appendix I species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Estimates of the wild population are difficult to compile because of the remoteness of the snow leopard’s range but most scientists agree that 3,500 to 7,000 animals remain in the wild. The largest populations are in China, which compromises about 60% of the potential range, followed by Mongolia and India.
Initiated in 1984, AZA’s Snow Leopard Species Survival Plan (SSP) strives to maintain a population of 150 animals in over 60 managed locations within North America. In order to maintain a stable captive population, recommended breedings produce an average of 14 cubs each year, an objective that has been enhanced by a declining incidence of neonatal mortality, especially by first-time mothers. As part of a zoo-based research program, the first cub conceived by artificial insemination has moved the SSP closer to genome banking. According to the International Studbook, there are approximately 478 snow leopards in zoos worldwide.
Snow Leopard SSP Coordinator
Jay Tetzloff, Miller Park Zoo
Snow Leopard Regional Studbook Keeper
Lynn Tupa, Albuquerque Biological Park
Snow Leopard SSP Education Advisor
Tara Padula, Denver Zoo
Snow Leopard International Studbook Keeper
Dr. Leif Blomqvist, Nordens Ark
The Snow Leopard SSP works closely with the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT), a tax-exempt non-profit organization dedicated to conserving snow leopards, their prey and habitat. They do this through balanced programs that meet the needs of the local people and the environment, for example, partnering with local herders on the distribution of their handicrafts globally in exchange for keeping these cats protected. In-situ conservation programs are implemented through SLT’s in-country Snow Leopard Conservationists (SLC) in China, India, Mongolia and Pakistan, who focus on alleviating people-wildlife conflict due to livestock depredation, improving management of protected areas, offering local communities with incentives and building local capacity. Through its Natural Partnerships Program, local persons will be recruited to serve as SLCs in other countries as funds become available.