|Although sharing its name with the common leopard, the snow leopard is not believed to be closely related to the leopard or the other members of the Pantherine group and is classified as the sole member of the genus Uncia uncia. Due to the underdevelopment of the fibro-elastic tissue that forms part of the vocal apparatus the Snow Leopard cannot give a full, deep roar and this along with differences in skull characteristics help to separate it from its fellow big cats.
In appearance, the snow leopard is strikingly different from the common leopard. Although it has similar rosettes and broken-spot markings, they appear less well defined and are spaced further apart. The fur is long and woolly and helps protect the cat from the extreme cold of its generally mountainous habitat. The general ground coloration of the cat is predominantly grey with brownish/yellow tinges on its flanks and lighter, often white fur on its belly, chest and chin. The head, which sports small ears and a distinctive heavy brow, is rounded and comparatively small for its body size, which can be up to 1.3 meters length and weigh up to around 70kg. The long tail, which can measure as much as 900cm, helps the cat balance as it moves over rugged and often snowy terrain. The powerful limbs of the snow leopard are relatively short for its body size and are supported by large, powerful paws.
The snow leopard is found in the mountainous regions of central Asia, ranging in the north from Russia and Mongolia down through China and Tibet into the Himalayan regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Although the total area of its range is extremely large the actual areas in which the cat is found are relatively small and notably fragmented. This has led to disagreements amongst experts as to the subspeciation of the snow leopard. The cats found in the north of the range are generally classified as Uncia uncia uncia, whilst those in the south, Uncia uncia uncioides. However some suggest that due to the fragmentation of the species within those broad areas, genetic differences may exist and further subspeciation may well be necessary.
The snow leopard generally inhabits elevations between 2000-4000 meters although it can occasionally be found at lower altitudes to the north of its range and as high as 5500 meters in Himalayan regions. The cat is generally associated with generally rocky terrain such as high valley ridges, rocky outcrops and mountain passes. As summer gives way to winter, the snow leopard will follow its migrating prey down below the tree line to the lowland forests that cover much of its habitat, however the cat is rarely associated with dense forestation.
Generally crepuscular in its hunting activities, the snow leopards main prey is that of wild sheep such as Bharal (Blue Sheep) and Argali, goats, including Markhor and Ibex. Other prey taken includes Musk Deer, marmots, various species of hare and birds. The cat often uses the natural protection of the terrain to stalk its prey, keeping low below the skyline and pouncing down onto its victim. Commonly the animal is a solitary hunter but may share the task with its mate during its breeding season. It has been know that one animal will stalk the prey while the other lies in wait to make the kill. With larger prey, it is common that the snow leopard will remain close to its kill and return over a period of three to four days to feed. This well built, muscular cat can bring down prey more than two to three times its size, as is the case with the native Yak. However, unlike its distant neighbors the tiger and leopard, the snow leopard is generally not aggressive toward man.
Where human habitation does come close to the range of the snow leopard, it is common, during the harsh winter months for the cat to take domestic livestock. Some conservation organizations are now working with local inhabitants to help educate in the need for conservation management and to supply financial reparation for the loss of domestic stock.
Due to the often-harsh weather conditions that prevail, cubs are always born in the spring, with mating taking place some three months earlier in late winter. This ensures that a food source is abundant and less effort is needed to secure a kill. The litter size is usually
between 1-4 (typically two) cubs and they are born after a gestation period of approximately 98 days. The cubs weigh between 320-708g at birth – have a daily average weight gain of approximately 48g per day and stay with their mothers until they are over 18 months old.
Because of the inaccessibility of much of the snow leopards habitat the exact numbers left in the wild is unknown, but some estimates place the figure as low as 4,500 to 5000. The decline in population has, in the past, been mainly due to the snow leopards much sought after fur and although the animal is protected in most areas, local hunting and trapping still remains a threat. As with the tiger, the snow leopard is still hunted for its bones, which are commonly used in many Chinese medicines and this, along with the enforced decline of many of the cats larger prey species, places continuing pressure on the remaining numbers of snow leopard left in the wild.
Because of this, the snow leopard is listed in the IUCN, The Red List of Threatened Animals as Endangered and it is probable that without continuing action by many of the world’s conservation organizations they may become extinct in the wild.