The sophisticated and graceful snow leopard is one of Earth’s most mysterious big cats. These masterfully camouflaged cats are distributed among 12 countries spanning central Asia and find solitude among the high tops of mountain ranges.
However today, this great cat’s very existence is threatened by both poaching and climate change in a similar way to some types of deer. Due to falling numbers, at present, the snow leopard is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
In this article, we will explore some key facts about this majestic creature and lift the lid on exactly why Snow Leopards are endangered.
Characteristics of the Snow Leopard
The snow leopard is perhaps one of the most distinctive members of the cat family. Snow leopards have dense fur coats that insulate them from the cold climates they inhabit, as well as a spotted white to grey colored coat to keep them well-camouflaged as they hunt and stalk their prey.
As well as having a thick fur coat, this big cat has a range of other adaptations that help it live in such a cold and hostile environment. This includes a stocky build and small ears to minimize heat loss and large paws that help it navigate through the snow by evenly distributing body weight. Their long and flexible tails also help them maintain balance as they navigate the unstable and rough mountain terrain.
Interestingly, the snow leopard is unable to roar. Instead, they make a range of other typical feline vocalizations including hissing, growls, and mews.
The Snow Leopard Habitat
Snow leopards are spread throughout 12 countries in central Asia, spanning from the south of Russia to the Tibetan plateau, in total it has been found inhabiting the following countries:
In these countries, they can usually be found living within mountain ranges, typically in areas at heights exceeding 3,000 meters. In the warmer summer months, they typically reside above the trees in mountainous meadows, while in winter they migrate to the forest floors at lower altitudes.
Current Population & Falling Numbers
The current population of snow leopards is estimated to currently be below 10,000. Since 2003, when there was an estimated 6,500 population, things have improved and in 2016, the world population was estimated to be in the 4,000 – 9,000 range. This isn’t necessarily due to things improving in terms of threat level; it is simply thought that the previous estimate may have been a low one.
Why is the Snow Leopard Endangered?
The snow leopard faces many threats including poaching, global warming, and habitat loss. However, the major threat to this act species is poaching, driven mostly by the illegal trade of animal skin and body parts. For instance, in China, up to 240 snow leopards are poached every year, while in Mongolia this is as much as 50. Other countries are also responsible for considerable amounts of poaching activity too, including Pakistan, India, and Tajikistan.
- Land Loss
Another major threat to this species of cat is habitat degradation caused by human habitation for both house building and cattle grazing. This means the snow leopard loses potential living space, which it requires to hunt prey, live and breed.
- Conflict with Farmers
Due to the loss of land, snow leopards prey habitats are also destroyed, resulting in a loss of food for them to hunt. This can often result in farmers and landowners cattle and animals being their next target, which can result in conflict and often results in snow leopards being killed in order for humans to protect their livestock.
- Climate Change
Due to climate change, the natural habitat of the snow leopard is continuing to change and be reduced in size. For example, plants and animals that require colder climates that are the prey of these cats may retreat higher up for survival. This often results in the habitat range of snow leopards being reduced, further threatening their survival in the wild.
How many species of Snow Leopard exist?
The Snow leopard belongs to the Felidae family and is within the Panthera species. It was previously listed in the Uncia species family, however genetic studies in 2008 revealed this to be incorrect. Currently, there is only a single species of Snow leopard recognized – P. Uncial, however, observations of morphological differences indicate there may be more than exist in the wild.
Since any genetic differences are yet to be revealed, the Snow leopard is currently termed a monotypic species. This just means that currently there are no recognized subspecies and only the P. Uncial species is recognized and used to refer to all potential categories.