Snow Leopard

The snow leopard is well adapted to the harsh, mountainous habitats where it makes its home. This beautiful, elusive mammal has the thickest coat of any big cat, and its padded feet function like insulated boots. Snow leopards live a solitary existence and make their dens in rocky caverns or sheltered crevices. These carnivores prowl over steep terrain of cliffs, gullies, and rocky outcrops in search of their preferred prey: mountain goats and sheep, deer, marmots, and small mammals.

Snow leopards have large home ranges, spanning from 50 to more than 2,000 square miles in some areas. They live high on Asian mountain ranges extending from Russia to India. Despite the remoteness of its habitat, this spotted cat, weighing between 55 and 165 pounds, is increasingly susceptible to human-made threats. Only an estimated few thousand snow leopards remain in the wild.

There are five major threats facing snow leopards in the wild:

  • Poaching, especially for the skins but also for the traditional medicinal trade, is a growing threat across snow leopard range states. 
  • Loss of natural wild prey (mostly wild sheep and goats, but also marmots and smaller prey) is another major threat. 
  • This loss of wild prey leads to another threat, retaliatory killing by shepherds and villagers when snow leopards switch to livestock as the only available alternative food source. Even when snow leopards do not kill livestock, they are often blamed for losses and killed as a ‘precautionary’ measure.
  • General disturbance and habitat loss is a growing threat as more and more people move into snow leopard habitat. 
  • Finally, lack of awareness is a threat – local communities are not aware of the endangered status of these big cats; local governments are not aware of the rapid disappearance of snow leopards and the need for improved enforcement both in and outside protected areas; and there is a surprising lack of scientific knowledge to inform management, including such basic facts as accurate population numbers and trends across the range states.

The snow leopard’s cryptic nature, large home ranges, and small population densities make this cat hard to study. Beginning with Dr. George Schaller's work in Pakistan and Nepal in the 1970s, WCS was a pioneer in snow leopard research and bringing the species’ plight to international attention. Today WCS continues to be a leader in saving these majestic felines. In 2000, WCS co-sponsored an International Snow Leopard Conference in Beijing, where research biologists and government officials from 11 of the cat’s range states shared information and discussed conservation priorities.

WCS has also studied and worked to protect the species in Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. Some of our field projects include creating public education campaigns to stop the purchase of snow leopard pelts, hosting training workshops, and providing ongoing support for government officials and community rangers who aim to stop poachers. WCS also works with local communities to help them preserve snow leopards and their prey species and assists governments in the design and management of protected areas for snow leopards.

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