The Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia/Uncia uncia)

Mysterious and believed by some to be magical, the snow leopard is a powerful hunter which inhabits some of the harshest regions on the planet. With no record of unprovoked attacks on humans and a majestic appearance, this fascinating feline has proved an enigma to scientists for hundreds of years.

The Discovery & Naming of the Snow Leopard

The Snow Leopard was given its first scientific name in 1775 by naturalist Johann von Schreber. Schreber chose the name
Felis uncia based on a 1761 description by the influential French author Georges Buffon, who called the animal ounce. The naming of animals can be a tricky business, and with time, two schools of thought evolved regarding which taxonomic group the snow leopard really fits into. Some believe that the snow leopard is a member of the big cat family, which would make its name Panthera uncia.Others feel that the snow leopard is set apart from felines and call it Uncia uncia.

Endangered Snow Leopard
By Macpedia

According to the latest genetic research into the snow leopard, its closest relative is the tiger with evolutionary divergence occurring around 2 million years ago although fossil evidence of snow leopards from this period is minimal. In the meantime, those who feel that the snow leopard deserves its own category say that it cannot be classified as a Panthera because all of the other felines in that group have something important in common – they can roar, while the snow leopard does not. What is evident is that we still know very little about the snow leopard.

It was as recently as 1970 when George Schaller became the first person to photograph a wild snow leopard in it’s natural habitat. Eleven years later, Rodney Jackson was to perform some ground-breaking studies into this species by fitting radio tracking devices to snow leopards in Nepal, for which he was awarded the Rolex Award for Enterprise. Searching for the snow leopard is challenging and today there are still reliability few photos and records of the snow leopard’s behaviour.

The Habitat & Behaviour of the Snow Leopard 

Snow Leopard Habitat
by Eric Kilby

One of the most significant difficulties faced by those wishing to learn more about the snow leopard and its behaviour is the inhospitable climate and terrain of their preferred habitats. Snow leopards inhabit a 2 million square mile range in the mountainous region of central Asia. Their range stretches through Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kygyztan, Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, the Northern Himalyas in India, Bhutan, China and Mongolia. These mountain highlands are rugged with rocky crags and cliffs, and rough scrub-land with some open land, providing a perfect setting for the carnivorous snow leopard to stalk its prey. During the summer months, snow leopards stay altitudes of around 5,000m above sea level, while in the harsher cold of winter, they move down to approximately 3,400m above sea level.

While life in the mountains is a struggle for humans, the snow leopard has physical adaptations which make it possible for it to survive the bitter cold of the peaks. As the top predator of this region, the snow leopard is a built to handle the harsh conditions and to successfully ambush and kill prey species.

The snow leopard has a short but broad nasal cavity, which warms icy air to prevent strain on the lungs while rounded ears prevent heat loss and the one meter long tail is used both to aid balance and like a blanket when sleeping. Standing at around 60cm at the shoulder and between measuring 90 – 115cm from head to rump, the snow leopard weighs in at around 35 – 55kg, slightly smaller than other big cats. Distinction in size between male and females is minimal, with males generally being a little larger than females.  The snow leopard’s famously exquisite thick fur is white on the under-body, while its back is grey, tinged with a hint of yellow and patterned with grey spots which form rosettes while its belly is covered with long white fur. Not only does the snow leopard’s fur provide camouflage, but it also insulates against the cold. The snow leopard’s large paws are also covered in fur to preserve body heat, while the large pads help to distribute the animal’s weight more evenly when travelling across snow.

Snow Leopard Close Up
Photo By Land Rover Our Planet

What really turns this animal into a flawless hunter though, are its long, muscular hind legs and strong chest muscles which make it possible for the snow leopard to jump distances of up to 15 metres. Masters of stalking and attack, snow leopards are capable of taking down prey of as much as three times their own body weight. Blue sheep, marmot, ibex, game birds such as partridge, and hare are all staples of the snow leopards diet, and as opportunistic killers, they have also been known to kill domesticated livestock. Feeding on a large kill over the course of three to four days, and making a kill roughly every week and a half, these big cats have also been found to supplement their diet with large amounts of plant material. No one is entirely sure why they do this, although it has been suggested that grasses and other foliage may provide vital nutrients, aid digestion or eliminate internal parasites.

As mentioned previously, knowledge about the behaviour of the snow leopard is limited. Additionally, much of the data available is from studies on captive snow leopards, which may have altered their behaviour due to their close proximity and interaction of humans. It is clear that snow leopards are a solitary species and radio tracking studies have shown that they are capable of travelling immense distances. Active throughout the day, but with peaks at dawn and dusk, snow leopards have extensive home territories. It is thought that snow leopards are not intensely territorial, and these ranges may overlap. Urine scent marking is used by both males and females to identify their presence to other individuals and to attract the other sex during the mating season (January).  After mating, females and males go their separate ways with the cubs being born in March and staying with the mother until the follow mating season.

Persecution & Protection of the Snow Leopard

Witnessing a snow leopard in the wild is a rare sight and one that would leave anyone in awe. However, the glamorous beauty of this species is one of the factors which has led to its downfall.

According to the IUCN Red List, there are between 4,000 and 6,000 snow leopards remaining in the wild, and they are classified as Endangered. Other experts are less optimistic and figure that there could be as few as 2,000 adult snow leopards left. The unfortunate truth is, that like much of the world’s fascinating fauna, the snow leopard has been persecuted to a point which will be difficult to return from.

Traditional Eastern medicine has long prescribed snow leopard body parts as a cure for joint pain, kidney problems and impotency, while in the Western world, snow leopard fur was once considered the height of luxury and elegance. Today, illegal trade in snow leopard parts and fur is still at a critical point, with 60 skulls confiscated in Chinese markets between 2003-2008. Prosecutions for these crimes are often muddied by the fact that traders may claim that the items are antiquities, meaning that charges cannot be brought against them.

Snow leopard in the Altai Mountain Region
Photo By Land Rover Our Planet

Another major threats faced by the snow leopard is habitat loss, as the human population grows and once open plains are transformed into farm and herd-lands. This loss of habitat impacts on prey species, diminishing their numbers and forcing the snow leopard to seek other sources of food. Livestock become the victims of the snow leopard’s voracious hunger, and struggling farmers seek retribution by hunting the hunter and killing them. The growing mining industry has also created new issues  as chemicals and explosives used to extract minerals cause environmental disturbance effecting both the snow leopards and their prey.

The situation for the snow leopard seems bleak, however there are a number of conservation agencies who are working hard to change the conclusion of the so-called mountain ghost’s story.  The snow leopard’s unique position in the ecosystem of the Central Asian Highlands means that the survival of this species will have a beneficial effect on other fauna in the region.

This means that the snow leopard is considered to be a “flagship species” – an iconic animal which can be used to draw people’s attention to the bigger picture in terms of conservation.

As more people learn about the work that can be done to save the snow leopard, by protecting its habitat and helping those who live  in the region, there is hope that we will not have to say goodbye to this species.