Most of us are familiar with this iconic animal because of its big public profile but considered a ‘medium-sized’ big cat, the snow leopard is considerably smaller than lions or tigers. The males weigh up to 55 kg and the females are even smaller weighing in at around 40 kg. Their 3 ft long tails are almost as long as the rest of their body, and helps them balance along the narrow ledges and ridges in their mountainous homes. Their smoky-grey fur is incredibly dense and woolly, enabling them to keep warm in temperatures as low as -40oC in winter.
Although their range covers twelve countries the main populations are in China, Mongolia, India, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan in the rugged mountain ranges.
Snow leopards are mainly active at dawn and dusk (crepuscular) and adults are solitary apart from when they are breeding and when the females are raising their cubs. They are known to mate in late winter and then the female gives birth after about three months. She will usually have 2 or 3 cubs, though solitary cubs and litters of up to five have been recorded too. The cubs stay with their mother until they are 18 – 24 months old.
Snow leopards are carnivores. Their most common prey are bharal (blue sheep) and ibex. However they will also hunt smaller animals such as marmots, pika, hares, small rodents and birds. It is thought that snow leopards will hunt a bharal or ibex every 10-15 days, which means that they consume 20-30 adult sheep every year. Snow leopards also prey on domestic livestock when they can.
Snow leopards are mostly found in the high, wild, rugged mountains that cross Central Asia. Usually inhabiting areas of elevations between 1,800 and 5,800 metres above sea level. They can be found at lower altitudes in northern areas such as the Russian, Mongolian and Chinese mountains.
The main threats that this species face include loss of their prey, poaching for illegal trade, conflict with local people, poorly planned mining within their habitat and lack of conservation capacity, policy and awareness.
Illegal trade: Snow leopards are killed for commercial purposes and poaching for illegal trade represents a significant threat. Pelts appear to be the main snow leopard produce in demand, but there is also evidence of demand for live animals for zoos and circuses. Other body parts found in trade include bones (used especially in Chinese medicine as a substitute for tiger bone), as well as claws, meat and sexual organs of male cats. Illegal trade appears to be increasing rapidly with China’s growing economic power. In Afghanistan, new markets have emerged that are difficult to police due to the on-going military conflict.
Loss of prey: Local community herders depend on their livestock financially and so have a growing incentive to increase the size of their herds. Larger herds need ever larger areas to graze and consequently reduce the availability of food for wild blue sheep and ibex, that the snow leopards typically feed on. As the numbers of wild prey reduce there is less natural prey available for the leopards.
Conflict with local people: With less wild prey to feed on, the snow leopards turn to the domestic livestock that is available. The loss of their animals means significant financial losses to the herders and unsurprisingly they often kill the leopards in retaliation. Snow leopards are trapped, poisoned or shot to prevent further attacks.
Poorly planned mining: Mining also threatens snow leopards by destroying their habitat. Miners use dangerous chemicals and explosives to extract minerals from the mountains where snow leopards live. Mines within snow leopard habitats cause severe ecological damage that forces snow leopards and their prey to relocate. Poorly managed mines also bring about large scale societal changes through immigration of workers from other regions, and often these migrants engage in poaching and hunting causing additional pressure on wildlife.
Lack of awareness: A general lack of awareness at both local and national levels further hinders conservation efforts. Up to a third of the snow leopard’s range falls along politically sensitive international borders, complicating trans-boundary conservation initiatives. Military conflict is taking place across much of the snow leopard’s range, causing immense damage to wildlife through direct loss of species and destruction of habitat, losses to landmines, the demands of displaced peoples for food and fuel, and the encouragement of trade in wildlife.
- The promotion of livestock grazing practices that will reduce any impact on the snow leopards’ natural prey species of blue sheep and ibex
- Introducing measures to protect domestic animals from being preyed on by snow leopards, and offsetting the financial losses through carefully designed schemes.
- Financial and societal incentives for communities to conserve snow leopards through community-based enterprise, livestock vaccination, eco-tourism, etc.
- Improving awareness and education of all those who can help protect snow leopards, from local communities to national governments
- Reduce the threats of poaching and illegal trade by strengthening legislation and policies, improving cooperation between parties e.g. at border crossings, and provide incentives to those willing to report illegal activities
Agvaantseren Bayarjargal, Mongolia and Nepal
Small worldwide grant
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