Facts About the Charming and Elusive Snow Leopard

Snow leopard uses its tail to cover its face
Snow leopards are beautiful grayish-white, thick-furred animals belonging to the cat family. However, they are neither included in the same category of big cats, that includes tigers, lions, jaguars and leopards; nor are they categorized as small cats, like the puma and cheetah.
Quick Facts!
Though named so, a snow leopard is not a type of leopard. A snow leopard belongs to a separate genus, Uncia, whereas a leopard belongs to the genus Panthera. A snow leopard is different from a leopard in many ways, physically as well as genetically. A snow leopard's fur is thicker than a leopard's. The snow leopard cannot roar due to the incomplete formation of the vocal tissues responsible for generating sound, whereas the characteristic of leopards is a fierce roar.
The snow leopard's skull is small for its body, whereas the leopard's skull is bigger in proportion to its body. Also, the snow leopard has a tail which is longer than a leopard's. The rosette patterns on a snow leopard are less denser, lighter, and are spaced farther apart as compared to those on leopards. Let's now concentrate on the individuality of snow leopards and understand their characteristic features.
Physical Appearance
The snow leopard is found mostly in hilly terrains and regions of very low and cold temperatures. Its physical features are natural adaptations that help the snow leopard brave these extreme conditions.
Fur
snow leopard fur
The snow leopard is an average-sized cat, which has a fur coat that is mostly a dull gray or dull and burnt yellow in color, underlined with shades of white in most places. Its fur is about 1.5-2 inches long and about 5 inches thick. The thickness of this fur coat shields the snow leopard from the cold.
Weight
snow leopard/human comparison
A full-grown male snow leopard weighs anywhere between 77-121 pounds (35-55 kg). Some of them might be on the heavier side and weigh about 155 pounds (70 kg). An adult female snow leopard weighs anywhere between 55-66 pounds (25-30 kg). The body, except the tail, is measured to be 75-130 cms in length.
Tail
snow leopard tail
The tail of a snow leopard deserves special mention as it is longer than the tails of other felines. It is approximately 90 cms in length and can store a lot of fat. This length and thickness aid the animal in maintaining its balance in locomotion. The tail also acts as a blanket for protection against severe winds and harsh mountain chills.
Rosettes
Its fur is spotted, covered throughout with blackish-brown spots that are spaced farther apart from each other. The markings or rosettes around these spots aide the snow leopard in camouflaging. These gray spots help the snow leopard merge in its surroundings and hide itself.
Limbs
snow leopard walking
Snow leopards have short and stubby legs (forelimbs are shorter than the hind limbs) that allow them to leap 50 feet horizontally and 20 feet vertically. Their paws are wide which help in even distribution of the snow leopard's body weight. They are lined with thick coats of fur which let the animal walk comfortably over snow blankets that can sometimes be as thick as 35 inches.
Skull
snow leopard head
The skull of a snow leopard is relatively smaller with small and rounded ears. These physical characteristics restrict heat loss from the body and help keep it warm.
Eyes
snow leopard face
Snow leopards are different from the other felines of the cat family because of their peculiar eye color which is either pale green or gray. Snow leopards are the only animals from the cat family that possess eyes of this color.
Sounds/Cat calls
snow leopard cry
The vocal tissues and chords of a snow leopard are not as efficiently developed as they are in other big cats. Due to the absence of the larynx and the under-formation of the vocal tissues, snow leopards cannot roar unlike their other feline counterparts. However, they are capable of generating sounds like hissing, purring, wailing, growling, mewing, and chuffing.
Habitat
Geographical Range
snow leopard range
Snow leopards are found mostly in hilly terrains and rocky mountain ranges of Central, South and East Asia, typically between the tree line and the permanent snow line. To be more specific, countries that boast of a scattered snow leopard population include China, India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Mongolia, Russia, Nepal, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Almost 60% of the current snow leopard population today is found in China.
Advertisement
Home Terrain
Snow leopards generally form their habitat within alpine meadows, treeless rocky mountains, broken cliffs, steep mountain slopes, and ravines. This kind of an environment provides protection and camouflage cover for them and allows them to find easy prey. The range of their habitat also depends largely on the availability of prey. These animals are not territorial, and hence the home ranges of two snow leopards could overlap.
Diet
Prey
Asiatic Ibex
Snow leopards can hunt prey three times larger than themselves. They are opportunistic feeders, so they would eat anything that comes their way if they fail to hunt big animals. Their diet consists of mountain sheep like the Asiatic and Siberian Ibex, Bharal (Pseudois nayaur or blue sheep), markhors, urial, goats, langurs, deer, and boars. Smaller prey include hare, Pikas (Ochotona), and rodents. Snow leopards also hunt small birds like the snow cock and Chukar (Alectoris chukar).
Hunting Technique
Snow leopards are active hunters and can chase their prey for up to 300-400 meters. They feed on a single kill for a week or two until the carcass of the prey is bare and devoid of any meat. This means that snow leopards essentially hunt within a span of 8-15 days depending on the size of their prey. In extreme conditions, when availability of wild prey is scarce, snow leopards resort to killing livestock that is being reared in the mountain areas.
Behavior
Activity
Snow leopards are crepuscular animals, that is, they are most active at dawn and dusk. No human attacks or killings by a snow leopard have ever been reported. When confronted with a human, the snow leopard is more likely to back off and run away than attack the human. The only instances where a snow leopard might portray an aggressive nature is during a combat between two male leopards or when cubs are in danger.
Territorial Habits
They are shy creatures that prefer living a solitary life instead of living in groups. To mark their territory, they use scent marks to prevent encroachment by other cats. These marks could be pug marks on rocks and crevices, or urine sprayed over scratches. These marks not only define territories, but also act as an effective mode of communication, which help other snow leopards follow a certain reliable trail that has already been traveled by others of their kind.
Reproduction and Offspring
Mating
Snow leopards mate between January and March. The leopards achieve sexual maturity between the age of two to three years. The female conceives and gestates for 90 to 100 days, giving birth to 2-3 cubs in a secluded place, like cliffs or crevices. The mother lines the crevices with soft fur from her undersides, to provide a soft bed for the cubs to lie on. The male leopard leaves the female after she conceives. The female snow leopard takes up the entire responsibility of raising the cubs.
Advertisement
Growth of Cubs
snow leopard cubs
Snow leopard cubs are born blind and helpless, albeit, they have a thick coat of fur to protect against the harsh winter chills. The cubs weigh in the range of 11-20 pounds at birth. They remain blind for 8-10 days and cannot walk until they are around 10 weeks old. After two-three months, it starts eating solids. In the next few months, the cub follows its mother and learn the basics of hunting, attack, and self-defense tactics. The cubs leave their mother once they are 18-22 months old.
Threats
Lifespan and Population
In the wild, snow leopards live for 12 to 15 years. Captivity increases their life expectancy by ten years and they are known to live for as long as 20 to 22 years. Although their secretive nature limits humans in their research about snow leopards, the population of these animals is estimated at 2500 around the world. Some sources claim that as many as 4000-6000 snow leopards still prevail. Nevertheless, many of these figures and statistics are estimates and out of date.
Poaching
Snow leopards are poached on a large scale for their beautiful, soft and shiny fur by high class poachers for their garments. They are also hunted for their pelt, bones, body parts and organs that are vital ingredients of traditional medicine in Asia.
Insufficient Prey, Habitat, and Resources
Snow leopards prefer habitats in regions of cold temperatures, scanty vegetation, and rocky mountainous terrains. Current climatic conditions have resulted in global warming, that makes the availability of such habitats a scarcity. Snow leopards find it difficult to survive in such conditions. They prey on wild sheep, mountain goats, langur monkeys, etc. A decrease in the numbers of these species has been observed. Therefore, the predators who don't have enough prey to feed on are affected.
Human Attacks
Many times, snow leopards resort to easy prey like livestock and domesticated animals. This infuriates the owners of the livestock, who take to killing the leopards in a fit of anger.
Symbolic Meaning
snow leopard stamp
In heraldry, a snow leopard is also known as an ounce. Snow leopards have a deep symbolic meaning for the Turkics of Central Asia. A snow leopard is featured as an emblem in the Turkic heraldry, where it is also known as irbis or bars. It is the national symbol for the Tatars and Kazakhs. A snow leopard is also found on the official seal of Almaty. It is also the official symbol on the membership badge of the Girls Scout Association of Kyrgyzstan.
Endangered Species and Conservation
It is a matter of huge concern that this beautiful and elusive animal is classified as a globally endangered species and is enlisted as an entry on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. The numbers are dwindling and snow leopards are almost on the verge of extinction. If not taken care of, this problem could go out of hand and snow leopards might soon become extinct.

Many associations and organizations are working towards the welfare and conservation of the snow leopards. These organizations include the Snow Leopard Network, the Cat Specialist Group, the Snow Leopard Conservancy, the Snow Leopard Trust, the Panthera Corporation and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). These are non-profit organizations or governmental bodies that work together to understand the needs of the snow leopards, their needs and their survival.

The primary bone of contention is the relationship between humans and the cat. WWF has been working hard to normalize this feud by helping livestock farmers construct pens and shelters that are attack-proof. WWF is also working towards the conservation of the Eastern Himalayan mountains and landscapes which is considered to be the favorable breeding region for the snow leopards. WWF, in association with TRAFFIC, the organization that monitors wildlife trade, is trying to keep a check on snow leopard poaching and control it.
Snow leopards are rare and elusive animals. It is high time that we muster up our resources and work towards the preservation and continued existence of these magnificent cats.