The snow leopard (Panthera uncia or Uncia uncia) is a moderately large cat native to the mountain ranges of Central Asia. The classification of this species has been subject to change and is still classified as Uncia uncia by MSW3 as of 2000 and CITES Appendix I. However with more recent genetic studies the snow leopard is now generally considered as Panthera uncia and classified as such by IUCN. Classically, two subspecies have been attributed however genetic differences between the two have not been settled. The snow leopard remains on the endangered species list classified as C1.
Snow leopards occupy alpine and subalpine areas generally 3,350 and 6,700 metres (10,990 and 22,000 ft) above sea level in Central Asia. The Snow Leopard Survival Strategy (McCarthy et al. 2003, Table II) compiled national snow leopard population estimates, updating the work of Fox (1994). Many of the estimates are acknowledged to be rough and out of date, but the total estimated population is 4,080-6,590. However, the global snow leopard effective population size (those likely to reproduce) is suspected to be fewer than 2,500 (50% of the total population, or 2,040-3,295).
Snow leopards are smaller than the other big cats but, like them, exhibit a range of sizes, generally weighing between 27 and 55 kg (60 and 120 lb), with an occasional large male reaching 75 kg (170 lb) and small female of under 25 kg (55 lb). Body length ranges from 75 to 130 centimetres (30 to 50 in), with the tail adding a further 80 to 100 cm (31 to 39 in) to that length. These cats stand about 60 cm (24 in) at the shoulder.
Snow leopards have long thick fur, and their base color varies from smoky gray to yellowish tan, with whitish underparts. They have dark gray to black open rosettes on their body with small spots of the same color on their heads and larger spots on their legs and tail. Unusually among cats, their eyes are pale green or gray in color.
Snow leopards show several adaptations for living in a cold mountainous environment. Their bodies are stocky, their fur is thick, and their ears are small and rounded, all of which help to minimize heat loss. Their paws are wide, which distributes their weight better for walking on snow, and have fur on their undersides to increase their grip on steep and unstable surfaces; it also helps to minimize heat loss. Snow leopards' tails are long and flexible, helping them to maintain their balance, which is very important in the rocky terrain they inhabit. Their tails are also very thick due to storage of fats and are very thickly covered with fur which allows them to be used like a blanket to protect their faces when asleep.
The snow leopard has a short muzzle and domed forehead, containing unusually large nasal cavities that help the animal breathe the thin, cold air of their mountainous environment.
The snow leopard cannot roar, despite possessing partial ossification of the hyoid bone. This partial ossification was previously thought to be essential for allowing the big cats to roar, but new studies show that the ability to roar is due to other morphological features, especially of the larynx, which are absent in the snow leopard. Snow leopard vocalizations include hisses, chuffing, mews, growls, and wailing.
Naming and etymologyBoth the Latinised genus name, Uncia, and the occasional English name "ounce" are derived from the Old French once, originally used for the European lynx. "Once" itself is believed to have arisen by back-formation from an earlier word "lonce" – the "L" of "lonce" was construed as an abbreviated "le" ("the"), leaving "once" to be perceived as the animal's name. This, like the English version "ounce", became used for other lynx-sized cats, and eventually for the snow-leopard.
The snow leopard is also known in its native lands as shan (Ladakhi), irves (Mongolian: ирвэс), waawrin prraang (Pashto: واورين پړانګ), bars or barys (Kazakh: барыс [ˈbɑrəs]), ilbirs (Kyrgyz: Илбирс ) and barfani chita - "snow cheetah" (Urdu).
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the origin of the word panthera is unknown. A folk etymology derives the word from the Greek πάν pan- ("all") and thēr ("beast of prey") because they can hunt and kill almost everything. It has also been proposed that it comes ultimately into Greek from a Sanskrit word meaning "the yellowish animal" or "whitish-yellow". The Greek word πάνθηρ, pánthēr, referred to all spotted Felidae generically.
Taxonomy and evolution
A few subspecies have been proposed for animals living in different geographical regions. With the possible exception of U. u. baikalensis-romanii, which requires further evaluation, these subspecies were generally not considered valid. The Handbook of the Mammals of the World recognizes two subspecies: U. u. uncia, from central Asia north-eastwards to Mongolia and Russia; and U. u. uncioides in western China and the Himalayas.
Biology and behaviorIn summer, snow leopards usually live above the tree line on mountainous meadows and in rocky regions at an altitude from 2,700 to 6,000 m (8,900 to 20,000 ft). In winter, snow leopards come down into the forests to an altitude of around 1,200 to 2,000 m (3,900 to 6,600 ft). Snow leopards prefer broken terrain and can travel without difficulty in snow up to 85 centimetres (33 in) deep, although snow leopards prefer to use existing trails made by other animals.
The snow leopard leads a largely solitary life, although mothers may rear cubs in dens in the mountains for extended periods.
An individual snow leopard lives within a well-defined home range, but does not defend its territory aggressively when encroached upon by other snow leopards. Home ranges vary greatly in size. In Nepal, where prey is abundant, a home range may be as small as 12 km2 (5 sq mi) to 40 km2 (15 sq mi) and up to five to ten animals are found here per 100 km2 (40 sq mi); whereas in habitats with sparse prey, an area of 1,000 km2 (400 sq mi) supports only five of these cats.
Like other cats, snow leopards use scent marks to indicate their territory and common travel routes. These are most commonly produced by scraping the ground with the hind feet before depositing urine or scat, but they also spray urine onto sheltered patches of rock.
Snow leopards are crepuscular, being most active at dawn and dusk. They are known for being extremely secretive and well camouflaged.
Hunting and diet
The diet of the snow leopard varies across its range and with the time of year, and depends on prey availability. In the Himalayas, it preys mostly on bharals (Himalayan blue sheep) but in other mountain ranges such as the Karakoram, Tian Shan, and Altai, its main prey consists of Siberian ibex and argali, a type of wild sheep, although this has become rarer in some parts of the snow leopard's range. Other large animals eaten include various types of wild goats and sheep (such as markhors and urials), other goat-like ruminants such as Himalayan tahr and gorals, plus deer, boars, and langur monkeys. Smaller prey consists of marmots, woolly hares, pikas, various rodents, and birds such as the snow cock and chukar.
Considerable predation of domestic livestock occurs which brings it into direct conflict with humans. Herders will kill snow leopards to prevent them from taking their animals. The loss of prey animals due to over grazing by domestic livestock, poaching and defense of livestock are the major drivers for the decreasing population of Panthera uncia. Snow leopards have not been reported to attack humans, and appear to be among the least aggressive of all the big cats. As a result, they are easily driven away from livestock; they readily abandon their kills when threatened and may not even defend themselves when attacked.
Snow leopards prefer to ambush prey from above, using broken terrain to conceal their approach, and can leap as far as 14 meters (46 ft). They will actively pursue prey down steep mountainsides, using the momentum of their initial leap to chase animals for up to 300 metres (980 ft). They kill with a bite to the neck, and may drag the prey to a safe location before feeding. They consume all edible parts of the carcass, and can survive on a single bharal for two weeks before hunting again. Annual prey needs appears to be 20-30 adult blue sheep.
Reproduction and life cycle
The mother gives birth in a rocky den or crevice lined with fur shed from her underside. Litter sizes vary from one to five cubs, but the average is 2.2. The cubs are blind and helpless at birth, although already with a thick coat of fur, and weigh from 320 to 567 grams (11 to 20.0 oz). The eyes open at around seven days, and the cubs can walk at five weeks and are fully weaned by 10 weeks. Also when they are born they have full black spots and turn into rosettes as they grow up.
The cubs leave the den at around two to four months of age, but remain with their mother until they become independent after around 18–22 months. Once independent, they may disperse over considerable distances, even crossing wide expanses of flat terrain to seek out new hunting grounds. This likely helps reduce the inbreeding that would otherwise be common in their relatively isolated environment. Snow leopards become sexually mature at two to three years, and normally live for 15–18 years, although in captivity they can live for up to 21 years.
Its geographic distribution runs from the Hindu Kush in eastern Afghanistan and the Syr Darya through the mountains of Pamir Mountains, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kashmir, Kunlun, and the Himalaya to southern Siberia, where the range covers the Russian Altai mountains, Sayan, Tannu-Ola mountains and the mountains to the west of Lake Baikal. In Mongolia, it is found in the Mongolian and Gobi Altai and the Khangai Mountains. In Tibet it is found up to the Altyn-Tagh in the north.
Conservation statusThere are numerous agencies working to conserve the snow leopard and its threatened mountain ecosystems. These include the Snow Leopard Trust, the Snow Leopard Conservancy, the Snow Leopard Network, the Cat Specialist Group and the Panthera Corporation. These groups and numerous national governments from the snow leopard’s range, non-profits and donors from around the world recently worked together at the 10th International Snow Leopard Conference in Beijing. Their focus on research, community programs in snow leopard regions and education programs are aimed at understanding the cat's needs as well as the needs of the villagers and herder communities affecting snow leopards' lives and habitat.
Population and protected areas
In 1972, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) placed the snow leopard on its Red List of Threatened Species as globally "Endangered"; the same threat category was applied in the assessment conducted in 2008.
There are also 600-700 snow leopards in zoos around the world.
- Chitral National Park, in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.
- Hemis National Park, in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, India.
- Khunjerab National Park, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan.
- Nanda Devi National Park, in state of Uttarakhand, India, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site.
- Qomolangma National Nature Preserve, Tibet, China.
- Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site.
- Tumor Feng Nature Reserve, western Tianshan Mountains, Xinjiang, China.
- Valley of Flowers National Park, Uttarakhand, India, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site.
- Shey-Phoksundo National Park, Dolpa, Nepal.
- Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve, Baglung, Nepal.
- Annapurna Conservation Area, Western Nepal.
- Jigme Dorji National Park, Bhutan
- Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, Mongolia
- Ubsunur Hollow, on the territorial border of Mongolia and the Republic of Tuva, Russia
- Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary, near Anini, India
- Aksu-Djabagly Nature Reserve, Kazakhstan
- Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve, Kyrgyzstan
- Katun Nature Reserve, Russia
- Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, Lahaul Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India
- Pin Valley National Park, Lahaul Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India
- Great Himalayan National Park, Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, India
A "surprisingly healthy" population of Snow Leopards has been found living at 16 locations in the isolated Wakhan Corridor in northeastern Afghanistan giving rise to hopes for survival of wild Snow Leopards in that region.
Relationships with humans
Snow leopard in film and televisionThe first documentary on snow leopards was made by Hugh Miles, named Silent Roar - In Search of the Snow Leopard.
Planet Earth has a segment on snow leopards. The series took some of the first video of snow leopards in the wild and also featured a snow leopard hunting a markhor.
Nisar Malik, a Pakistani journalist, and cameraman Mark Smith (who had worked on the Planet Earth segment) spent a further 18 months filming snow leopards in the Hindu Kush for the BBC film Snow Leopard - Beyond the Myth.
Snow leopard in heraldrySnow leopards have symbolic meaning for Turkic people of Central Asia, where the animal is known as irbis or bars, so it is widely used in heraldry and as an emblem.
The snow leopard (in heraldry known as the ounce) (Aq Bars) is a national symbol for Tatars and Kazakhs: a snow leopard is found on the official seal of the city of Almaty, and a winged snow leopard is found on Tatarstan's coat of arms. A similar leopard is featured on the coat of arms of North Ossetia-Alania. The Snow Leopard award was given to Soviet mountaineers who scaled all five of the Soviet Union's 7000m peaks. In addition, the snow leopard is the symbol of the Girl Scout Association of Kyrgyzstan.