Snow leopards are feline predators of the Himalayas and Central Asian mountain ranges. They are found in alpine and subalpine regions, living on altitudes more than 5000 m in the summer and dropping to a more temperate 1500-2000 m in the winter. They are smaller than the other 'big cats', about 80-120 cm long (excluding tail) and weighing up to 120 lbs. Due to their relatively small size - leopards, the smallest of the big cats, can reach lengths of 160 cm and can weigh up to 200 lbs - and their inability to roar, snow leopards aren't generally considered among the 'big cats'.
Like many of its relatives, this gorgeous creature is facing the wrath of human expansion. Snow leopard numbers are dwindling all over its range and efforts to promote populations are falling short. The IUCN enlists the snow leopard in the category Endangered.
Snow leopards are one of the least documented big cats, thanks in part to their remote, inaccessible habitat, and their shy nature, which has earned them the nickname Ghost of the Mountains. There are estimated to be about 5000-6000 snow leopards in the wild, but considering the unreliability of the data, the actual number could be as low as half the estimate.
Conservation groups agree on three main threats faced by the snow leopard:
- Habitat Destruction
- Conflicts with Humans
Snow leopards are hunted throughout their range, primarily for their fur and numerous other body parts.
Furs of wild cats are always in great demand, and despite a ban on hunting snow leopards in all the countries it is found in, their pelts find their way into the black market.
Chinese medicine, which has courted controversy over its traditional usage of animal organs, is also a sizable market for leopard organs.
As human encroachment extends into the snow leopard's territory, the majestic creature is forced to back into a corner with no route out. With no natural predators of its own, the leopard is the apex predator of its habitat and consequently is affected the most by any slight changes on any level of the food web.
A decrease in leopard population indicates a decrease in the population of its prey, in turn indicating a decrease in the amount of grass - a vital commodity in the harsh alpine terrain - due to overgrazing by domestic livestock. As the grass cover dwindles, the grazers are the first to suffer, but their superlative numbers carry the species through. The leopard on the other hand, naturally much less abundant than its prey, is drastically affected by a drop in the availability of food.
Conflict with Humans
A leopard forced to survive in a reduced territory may sometimes hunt down livestock, inciting the local herders and tribesmen against it. Although snow leopards only turn towards domestic livestock as a last resort (livestock does not constitute more than 20% of a snow leopard's diet even in areas of high interaction with humans), and are probably least aggressive towards humans among big cats, herders don't hesitate to shoot it. Habitat destruction, which invariably leads to increased interaction with humans, is the most potent long-term threat to the snow leopard.
There are several conservation agencies, such as Snow Leopard Conservancy, Snow Leopard Trust etc., trying to educate the local herders in the snow leopards' natural habitat about these majestic animals, as well as fighting on legal terms and campaigning against poaching and the black market trade of its organs. Much has to be done if we are to save this magnificent creature from joining the ranks of the dodo.