Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard (Panthera uncial)

The elusive snow leopard, a shy, very rare creature with unique, beautiful fur recently featured extensively as part of the BBC’s major TV series ‘Planet Earth II’.  Rare footage documented the behaviour of an animal which has tragically suffered at the hands of the fur trade.  Today this fascinating animal is given strict international protection and is a further reminder of the bloody, shameful past and present behaviour and practices of the cruel fur trade.

Snow Leopards In The Wild

An endangered species, the snow leopard is found in the tough, rugged mountains of Central Asia.

Although wonderfully adapted to this cold, barren landscape of high-altitude, human threats have still created an uncertain future for the leopards. Despite a huge range –from Siberia to India and across to China in the East, scientific estimates suggest that there may only be around 4000 snow leopards left in the wild. Home ranges vary greatly in size. In Nepal, where prey is abundant, there may be between five to ten leopards sharing an area of 100 square km. But in regions where prey is scarce, five would need an area of 1,000 square km to find enough food to live on.

Mountain herbivores make up the main diet, especially wild sheep, ibex and goat-antelopes which are hunted by stealth, stalked until close enough to make a sudden leap.

The snow leopard is usually solitary and highly elusive, and, as a crepuscular animal, dawn and dusk are its most active times.   An individual snow leopard lives within a well-defined home range but doesn’t defend its territory aggressively when encroached upon by other snow leopards. They are generally shy, even within their own species and will only seek out other snow leopards during mating season.  Even then, females raise their cubs alone.

It has many particular adaptations for survival in its habitat. Their large paws keep them from sinking into the snow. Round, short ears reduce heat loss, and the wide, short nasal cavity warms the air before it reaches the lungs. They have strong, short front limbs and longer hind limbs which help launch them up to 10 meters in one leap!

Snow leopards are smaller and lighter than the other big cats, weighing between 28 and 55 kilos and with a body length of 75 to 130 cm with the tail length being almost the same. The tail is long and thick and helps the cat keep itself warm as it wraps it around itself during sleep. Such a long tail also helps each them balance and speed as they race down rocky inclines in pursuit of their prey.

Their fur is beautiful, long and thick, with the base colour varying  from smoky gray to yellowish tan, with whitish underparts. The dark gray to black round markings  called rosettes cover the body, head, legs and tail. Each snow leopard’s markings are subtly different and this is one way that researchers can tell them apart. Sadly the beauty of this fur is one reason the animal is endangered as it was hunted to near extinction by fur trappers and is still being killed for its fur despite being protected in all range countries.

Did you know?

  • People living in and around the Himalayas refer to the animals as the “ghost of the mountains”.
  • Snow leopards live alone most of their lives.
  • Snow leopards can walk over 30 kilometers per day.
  • They have the longest tail of any cat species.

The Snow Leopard and the Fur Trade

The trade in wild furs has been responsible for the widespread decline if many species and has even caused the extinction of some.  It was the vagaries and greed of the fashion industry which brought the near extinction of the big spotted cats and today they are all classified as endangered.  Their populations have been devastated by the huge numbers of animals killed for their fur.

The case of the snow leopard perfectly illustrates the plight of many wild endangered animals and the way the fur trade has had such a devastating effect. With as few as 4000 of these animals left in the wild, their predicament must be seen alongside some of the fur trade’s past  promotions and  advertisements.  Here are two examples from the 1960s that typify the mood of the day:

‘Max Bogen regret that (fur coat) no. 17 is no longer available.  Unfortunately, a Himalayan snow leopard perfect enough to become a Max Bogen fur coat has not been sighted in over two years.  But you may be sure that when the right one comes along, it’ll end up at Max Bogen.’

‘Untamed…the snow leopard, provocatively dangerous.  A mankiller.  Born free in the wild whiteness of the high Himalayas only to be snared as part of the captivating new fur collection…styled and shaped in a one-of-a-kindness to be out the animal instinct in you.’

These cynical announcements reveal the business plans of the fur trade which has, throughout its history, exploited one species after another in the pursuit of profit.

In 1975, snow leopards were listed in Appendix I of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora) and in 1985 they became an Appendix-I species of the Convention of Migratory Species. Snow leopards have been accorded nation-wide legal protection in almost every range country, in some cases since the 1970s. It is illegal to sell snow leopard parts anywhere in the world.

Through CITES, it is also illegal to transport any snow leopard parts across international borders. Attempting to import a snow leopard hide into the USA is punishable by a fine of up to $25,000. In Nepal such trade could mean a 5-15 year jail sentence.



Snow Leopards Today

The following is taken from ‘Hundreds of Snow Leopards being killed every year, report warns’, an article written by Dale Roberts.  The original can be accessed at:

Hundreds of snow leopards are being killed every year across the mountains of central Asia, threatening the already endangered big cat, according to a new report.

There are as few as 4,000 of the solitary and elusive cat remaining and numbers have fallen by a fifth in the last 16 years.

But between 220 and 450 are killed each year, found the report from Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network, published on Friday ahead of a meeting on the crisis at the UN in New York. The number could be much higher, the NGO warned, as killings in remote mountain areas often go undetected.

Over half the so-called “ghosts of the mountains” are killed by farmers in retaliation for attacks on livestock and 20% are trapped by snares set for other creatures. Another 20% are killed for the illegal fur trade, though pelts from snow leopards killed for other reasons are often sold on.

To reduce the killings, the report’s authors recommend the roll-out of leopard-proof corrals for yaks and horses and insurance schemes for farmers. Such schemes are already being tested, for example in a village in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The natural prey of snow leopards are Himalayan blue sheep and ibex, but their numbers have fallen as their habitat is converted to farmland.

Stronger law enforcement is also needed, said Traffic, with less than a quarter of known cases of snow leopard poaching investigated and just one in seven prosecuted.

Snow leopards live in 12 nations but more than 90% of the reported snow leopard poaching takes place in five countries: China and Mongolia, which host most snow leopards, as well as Pakistan, India and Tajikistan, which each have just a few hundred of the animals.

Some 20% of snow leopards are killed for the illegal fur trade, though pelts from animals killed for other reasons are often sold on.

The report found up to 200 snow leopards are being illegally traded each year, with China and Russia the most frequent destinations for animals poached in other countries and Afghanistan also a major illegal market. But the number of pelts seized has fallen sharply in recent years, particularly in China, perhaps because of increasing enforcement.

“Even if there is reduced demand for snow leopard skins, the killing will continue unless we all work together to drastically reduce human-wildlife conflict and ensure that mountain communities can co-exist with snow leopards,” said Rishi Sharma, from WWF and a co-author of the report. “Compensation schemes and innovative predator-proof corrals are making a difference but we urgently need to expand these to benefit communities – and snow leopards – across Asia’s high mountains.”

The leopards at also at risk from climate change, with warming temperatures threatening to leave a third of their habitat uninhabitable as the tree line shifts up the mountains and causes farmers to plant crops and graze livestock at higher altitudes.