Animal Info - Snow Leopard

(Other Names: 雪 豹, ユキヒョウ, Ai Ye Bao, Barfani Chita, Bars, Bharal He, Chen, Hiu Chituwa, Ikar, Irbis, Irvis, Léopard des Neiges, Leopardo das Neves, Leopardo de las Nieves, Leopardo Nival, Once, Ounce, Palang-I-Barfi (Berfy), Pantera de las Nieves, Panthère des Neiges, Sarken, Schneeleopard, Shan, Snezhnai Bars, Xue Bao)

Uncia uncia (Panthera u.)

Status: Endangered


Contents

1. Profile (Picture)
2. Tidbits
3. Status and Trends (IUCN Status, Countries Where Currently Found, Taxonomy, Population Estimates, History of Distribution, Threats and Reasons for Decline)
4. Data on Biology and Ecology (Weight, Habitat, Age to Maturity, Gestation Period, Birth Season, Birth Rate, Early Development, Dispersal, Maximum Reproductive Age, Maximum Age, Diet, Behavior, Social Organization, Density and Range)
5. References


Profile

Pictures: Snow Leopard #1 (24 Kb JPEG) and Snow Leopard #2 (29 Kb JPEG) (IUCN Cat Spec. Group)

The snow leopard has long, thick smoky gray fur with dark rosettes and spots, and a very long thick tail. Weighing up to 75 kg (165 lb), it has large, well-cushioned paws, a strong chest, and short forelimbs that enable it to scale outcroppings high on cliffs. Further adaptations for high-altitude life include long hair with dense, woolly underfur and an enlarged nasal cavity. It has been reported to leap as far as 15 m (about 50'). Throughout its range, the snow leopard is mostly associated with steep, dry, rocky terrain with shrub or grassland vegetation. It is generally found at elevations between 3000 - 4500 m (9800 - 14,800'). The snow leopard is an opportunistic predator. Its most common prey includes wild sheep and goats, but it also eats marmots, pikas, hares and game birds (chukor partridge and snowcocks), as well as domestic sheep and goats.

The snow leopard can be crepuscular or nocturnal, apparently depending on the degree of persecution by humans. It is an excellent rock climber and prefers traveling along linear features such as major ridgelines, gullies, and the base or crest of broken cliffs.

A female snow leopard usually has 2 - 3 cubs. The cubs eat their first solid food when they are about 2 months old, and a month later begin to follow their mother when she goes hunting. They hunt with the mother at least through their first winter. Adult snow leopards are generally solitary. Males and females apparently have overlapping ranges. An average density of about 1 snow leopard/100 sq km (about 3/100 sq mi) over large tracts of habitat appears to be typical.

By 1970 the snow leopard had already become rare due to hunting for fur and as a trophy, persecution as a livestock predator, and loss of prey. Currently, it has a fragmented distribution, consisting of a mix of long narrow mountain systems and islands of montane habitat scattered throughout a vast region surrounding the Central Asian deserts and plateaus.


Tidbits

*** A poll taken in four Nepalese villages showed that 95% of the respondents had a negative attitude toward snow leopards, because of its predation on domestic animals and its economic impact. Loss of livestock averaged about 3% per household, with some individual losses much higher. 52% of those polled said that extermination was the only way to reduce loss; 35% would prefer compensation if extermination failed; and none thought improved husbandry an acceptable option. Ignorance of the snow leopard's protected status is also a problem. Only 1% of the people in the poll mentioned above knew that snow leopards were legally protected.  (Oli 1994)

*** In other areas, such as some locations in Ladakh, a snow leopard which is caught attacking livestock may simply be driven away with shouts and stones, since many villages are without guns. This stems from one of the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, namely that any taking of life is sinful. (Osborne 1983)

*** A young female snow leopard ... was captured by villagers in northern Pakistan while attacking their goats (it killed several).  They kept it alive for two days, when a team from WWF arrived.  On the advice of WWF, the villagers ... released it in Khunjerab National Park Buffer Zone, approximately 15 km (9.3 mi) from where she was caught.  There was a gathering of 30 - 40 villagers who were jubilant at the release. (Cat News 1998c)

*** Although a snow leopard is as large as a regular leopard ... and potentially dangerous, no record exists of a snow leopard having become a man-eater (Schaller 1979).

*** Currently, a snow leopard skin is said to be sold in the Kazakhstan black market for about US$10,000. (Yamaguchi 2001)  


Status and Trends

IUCN Status:

Countries Where the Snow Leopard Is Currently Found:

2004: Occurs in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. (IUCN 2004)

Taxonomy:

Recent genetic analyses have lead to the proposal that all modern cats can be placed into eight lineages which originated between 6.2 - 10.8 million years ago. The snow leopard is placed in the "Panthera lineage," which diverged from its ancestors as a separate lineage 10.8 million years ago. The Panthera lineage also includes the lion, the jaguar, the leopard, the clouded leopard, and the tiger. (Johnson et al. 2006)

Population Estimates:

[Note: Figures given are for wild populations only.]

"Our surveys were made mostly over a decade ago and they were too cursory to provide a basis for reliable population estimates.  This makes me reluctant to offer figures.  However, even a well-considered guess has validity when evaluating status of endangered species." (Schaller 1998)

History of Distribution:

In 1970 the snow leopard was already considered rare in its known range states, which are the same as at present. Currently, it has a fragmented distribution, consisting of a mix of long narrow mountain systems and islands of montane habitat scattered throughout a large region surrounding the Central Asian deserts and plateaus. Core areas of snow leopard habitat are present around the periphery of the Tibetan plateau and Taklamakan desert in the Himalaya, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Pamir, Kun Lun, Tian Shan, and Altai mountain ranges.

"...Indeed, populations have continued to decline, coming close to extirpation in the isolated mountain massifs of Inner Mongolia in China, and plummeting throughout newly declared Central Asian Republics.  On the brighter side, populations are on the increase in Pakistan's Khunjerab National Park, Nepal's Annapurna Conservation Area, and southern Tibet's Qomolangma Nature Preserve." (Jackson & Ahmad 1997)  By 2001, no subpopulation was believed to contain more than 250 mature breeding individuals (IUCN 2003a).

Some further details by country:

  • China: The snow leopard has a wide distribution in western China, its geographical range including the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet and the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Inner Mongolia and Qinghai. (Schaller et al. 1988)
  • India: The snow leopard is known to occur above about 3200 m (10,500') across the Himalayan regions of India, including the western states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh, and the eastern states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. (Fox 1991)   
  • Kazakhstan: It occurs in the Altai Mountains, in the northeastern part of the country; the Tian Shan Mountains, in the southeastern part of the country; and a few populations may exist between these two populations along the border between Kazakhstan and China. (Yamaguchi 2001)
  • Mongolia: The species occurs along the whole sweep of the Altai Mountains, from the Russian border in the west to the eastern limit at about 106 deg 20 min E. In the Transaltai Gobi, south of the Altai, are isolated, rugged ranges many of which have or until recently had snow leopards. North of the Altai, snow leopards occur in the Hangai Mountains, and, farther west, in the Hanhohiy Uul and Harkhyra Uul ranges. The cats once occupied the mountains west of Hovsgol Lake, but they are probably extinct there now. (Schaller et al. 1994)
  • Nepal: In Nepal it inhabits the main Himalayan chain along the Tibetan border. Its distribution seems to be localized in the western half of the Nepal Himalayas. It is reported to occur in the Mugu and Dolpa districts of far-western Nepal, and in the Manang district of western Nepal. There are also unverified reports of snow leopard occurrence elsewhere in Nepal, including the Mustang district. (Dhungel 1994)
  • Pakistan: The snow leopard occurs near the snow line in northern Pakistan in the districts of Swat, Dir and Chitral of the Northwest Frontier Province, Muzaffarabad district in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit and Baltistan districts in the Northern Areas. (Ahmad 1994
  • Russia: As far north as the Sayan Mountains in southern Siberia. (Maier 1998)
  • Tajikistan: It is found along the high Pamir-Altai range, but the main population occurs in the Pamir region in isolated patches of good habitat and low disturbance. (Buzurukov & Muratov 1994)   
  • Uzbekistan: In the northeast, next to Kyrgyzstan, along the western end of the Tian Shan Mountains, such as Talasskiy-Alatau and Chatkalskiy, and in the eastern part of the country, next to Tajikistan, along mountains such as Turkestanskiy, Zeravshanskiy and Gissarskiy. (Yamaguchi 2001)  

Distribution Map (50 Kb GIF) (IUCN Cat Spec. Group)
Distribution Map (48 Kb JPEG) (AZA Felid TAG)

Threats and Reasons for Decline:

Reasons for the snow leopard's decline include hunting for fur and as a trophy, killing by farmers because of its reputation as a livestock predator, and loss of prey due to man's hunting of the prey and competition of prey with domestic livestock. Large scale pika and marmot poisoning programs have also been conducted on the Tibetan Plateau. Recently, use of its bones in oriental medicine (with the decline in availability of tiger bones) has been a major reason for commercial poaching, since CITES has decreased the trade in its skins.


Data on Biology and Ecology

Weight:

The female snow leopard weighs 35 - 40 kg (77 - 88 lb); the male weighs 45 - 55 kg (100 - 120 lb) (up to 75 kg (165 lb)).

Habitat:

Snow leopards typically inhabit rugged terrain such as steep slopes with bluffs, ridges broken by outcrops, and valleys interrupted by cliffs, with arid and semi-arid shrubland, grassland, or steppe vegetation. It is generally found at elevations between 3000 - 4500 m (9800 - 14,800'), although it occasionally goes above 5500 m (18,000') in the Himalaya in the summer, and at the northern limits of its range it can be found between 600 - 1500 m (2000 - 4900').

In Mongolia and on the Tibetan Plateau, the snow leopard can be found in relatively flat country, especially if ridges offer suitable travel routes, and shrub and rock outcrops provide sufficient cover. During winter it may descend to lower elevations, but in summer it moves back up the mountain to the steepest and most remote terrain.

Some parts of its range, such as the massifs of the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, Tibet's Chang Tang, and the northern rim of Ladakh, are virtually devoid of vegetation. In Pakistan and India, the snow leopard is reported to migrate down into oak, fir or rhododendron forest for the winter, and in parts of Russia it is reported to remain in conifer forest all year round, although it generally avoids dense forest. 

(Seidensticker & Lumpkin 1991, Nowell & Jackson 1996, Schaller 1998)

A geographical model of potential snow leopard habitat has been constructed by country (Hunter & Jackson 1997) over the leopard's total range.  The lower elevation limit generally followed a north-south vertical gradient and ranged from 1220 m (4000') in Mongolia to 3353 m (11,000') in eastern Nepal. The upper elevation limit was 5120 m (17,000') except in China, where it was extended to 5490 m (18,000') to include the high plains of the Tibetan Plateau, an area used by snow leopards. Unsuitable habitat was excluded, such as permanent snow fields and water bodies.  The potential habitat was then divided into "fair" and "good" categories based on slope (0 - 30 deg slope = fair; greater than 30 deg slope = good). Marginal use areas such as population centers and transportation corridors were also assigned to the "fair" category. The resulting total/good/fair potential habitat overall was 3.0 million sq km (1.2 million sq mi)/0.55 million sq km (0.21 million sq mi)/2.5 million sq km (0.97 sq mi). 

The corresponding areas of total/good/fair potential habitat by country were (thousands of sq km (thousands of sq mi)):

Afghanistan: 120/33/85 (46/13/33)
Bhutan: 7.3/1.3/6.1 (2.8/0.50/2.4)
China: 1,800/290/1500 (690/110/580)
India: 89/34/55 (34/13/21)
Kazakhstan: 71/15/56 (27/5.8/22)
Kyrgyzstan: 130/33/93 (50/13/36)
Mongolia: 280/21/260 (110/8.1/100)
Myanmar: 4.7/3.1/1.6 (1.8/1.2/0.62)
Nepal: 27/12/15 (10/4.6/5.8)
Pakistan: 81/32/49 (31/12/19)
Russia: 300/41/260 (120/16/100)
Tajikistan: 78/27/51 (30/10/20)
Uzbekistan: 14/5.1/8.8 (5.4/2.0/3.4)

Note that this model identifies Myanmar as a potential range state for the snow leopard for the first time, and that it attributes 60 % of the total potential snow leopard habitat to China.  

(Hunter & Jackson 1997)

The snow leopard lives in the Himalaya, Mountains of Central Asia, and Mountains of Southwest China Biodiversity Hotspots (Cons. Intl. 2005) as well as the Altai-Sayan Montane Forests, Tibetan Plateau Steppe, and Middle Asian Mountains Temperate Forests Global 200 Ecoregions (Olson & Dinerstein 1998, Olson & Dinerstein 1999).

Age to Maturity:

2 - 3 years (captivity).

Gestation Period:

93 - 110 days (McCarthy & Chapron 2003).

Birth Season:

Mating usually occurs between late January and mid–March. Births usually occur in June or July. (McCarthy & Chapron 2003)

Birth Rate:

Litter size is 1 - 5, usually 2 - 3.

Early Development:

The cubs eat their first solid food when they are about 2 months old, and a month later begin to follow their mother when she goes hunting. They hunt with the mother at least through their first winter.

Dispersal:

Snow leopards disperse at 18 - 22 months of age. Siblings may remain together briefly.

Maximum Reproductive Age:

15 years (captivity).

Maximum Age:

Up to 21 years (captivity).

Diet:

Schaller (1998) reports that snow leopards prey on whatever ungulates are available, from wild pigs and gorals to Himalayan tahrs, markhors, takins, and argalis, and in Mongolia on such animals as wild Bactrian camels, goitered gazelles, and kulans. However, their staple prey, without which they could not survive in most areas, consists of blue sheep and ibex. In addition, marmots are important among small mammals. Samples of droppings from Qinghai, China, showed blue sheep (24-39%) and marmots (37-65%) as the most important prey in summer, supplemented with deer, hares, pikas, and an occasional bird. In addition, all forms of livestock are killed, and livestock represent a significant prey item in some areas. In one study, the percentage occurrence of livestock in droppings from China and Mongolia was less than 5% in all areas except one. Other studies revealed the occurrence of livestock in 15% of droppings in Ladakh, and 45% in a small sample from Pakistan. (Schaller 1998)

A snow leopard may require 20 - 30 adult blue sheep annually and kill a large prey animal every 10 - 15 days. (Nowak & Paradiso 1983)  

Ungulate Prey Density:

  • Central Ladakh: 1.0/sq km (2.6/sq mi)
  • Southern Ladakh: 0.6/sq km (1.6/sq mi)

(Fox 1991)

Behavior:

Snow leopards in Nepal are primarily crepuscular, being most active around dawn until about 10:00, and then again in the late afternoon and evening. This activity pattern apparently contrasts with the more nocturnal activity of snow leopards in Ladakh, an area where cats must subsist partially or largely upon domestic livestock and are therefore subject to human retribution. (Jackson & Ahlborn 1989)

Snow leopards in Nepal demonstrated areas of concentrated use within their home range, spending 42 - 60% of their time in only 14 - 23% of the total home range area. They change location from one day to the next unless on a kill. Preferred bedding sites were located on or near ridges, cliffs and other steep sites with good vistas. Many bedding sites were situated along repeatedly traveled routes. They strongly prefer moving along major ridgelines, bluff edges, gullies, and the base or crest of broken cliffs. (Jackson & Ahlborn 1989)

"From contemporary data, reliably describing distance travel of the snow leopard, only the data of Tom McCarthy in the Gobi Altai is well-known.  Here the animal, followed with the help of a radio collar and satellite, freely crossed desert between separate mountain massifs.  The maximum distance of a traverse across desert was 60 km (37 mi), and most commonly 40 km (25 mi)." (Koshkarev 1998) 

Ibex, one of the snow leopard's main prey species, often are 2 - 3 times heavier than an adult snow leopard. It takes the mother snow leopard 2 years to teach her cubs how to kill them. (Pala 2003) 

Social Organization:

5 snow leopards (3 males and 2 females) were radio-collared in Nepal's Langu Gorge and their subsequent movements tracked. "The ranges of the five snow leopards overlapped almost entirely, although duplicate use of any particular area was separated in time. In the usual pattern of solitary felids, females occupy exclusive ranges which are shared by their offspring until they disperse." (Jackson 1991)  

Snow leopards are essentially solitary and hunt alone, but at times a pair travels together, especially during the winter mating period. A female may be accompanied by 1 - 3 cubs until they are a year or more old, and independent subadults may also associate intermittently. (Schaller 1998)

Snow leopards have a social marking system of scraping (made by raking the ground with their hind paws), scenting rocks and depositing other signs.

Density and Range:

Density:

  • Prime habitat: 0.05 - 0.08 individuals/sq km (0.13 - 0.2 individuals/sq mi); average over their entire distribution: 0.004 individuals/sq km (0.01 individuals/sq mi) (Fox 1994)
  • Langu Gorge, Nepal: 0.05 - 0.1 individuals/sq km (0.13 - 0.26 individuals/sq mi); southeast of Langu Gorge: 0.012 individuals/sq km (0.03 individuals/sq mi); Nar Phu, Nepal: 0.043 individuals/sq km (0.11 individuals/sq mi); Ladakh: 0.007 individuals/sq km (0.02 individuals/sq mi) and in other areas of Ladakh 0.058 and 0.083 individuals/sq km (0.15 and 0.22 individuals/sq mi); Taxkorgan Reserve, Xinjiang, China: 0.0035 - 0.0053 individuals/sq km (0.009 - 0.014 individuals/sq mi) (Jackson & Ahlborn 1989)
  • The average density of population of snow leopard in the highest central region of the Tunkinskiy Ridge [Russia, just north of the border with Mongolia] according to data gathered is 1.5 individuals/100 sq km (3.9 individuals/100 sq mi) (Koshkarev 1998).
  • Schaller (Schaller 1998) cited several estimates of snow leopard density that varied considerably, depending on the size of the survey area and intensity of research. He noted that an average density of about 1/100 sq km (~3/100 sq mi) over large tracts appeared to be typical of the three last estimates below:
    • Estimates based on small areas that were selected for study based on a substantial population:
      • 5 - 10 (excluding small cubs)/100 sq km (13 - 26/100 sq mi) (Nepal)
      • 4.8 - 6.7/100 sq km (12 - 17/100 sq mi) (Nepal)
      • 3.6/100 sq km (9.4/100 sq mi) within an area of 275 sq km (106 sq mi) (Mongolia)
    • Estimates for large areas:
      • 1.0 - 2.0/100 sq km (2.6 - 5.2/100 sq mi) in 15,000 sq km (5800 sq mi) of Ladakh
      • 0.8/100 sq km (2/100 sq mi) in 8200 sq km (3200 sq mi) of the Dzungarian Alatau in Kazakhstan
      • 1.0/100 sq km (2.6/100 sq mi), with a variation of 0.8 - 4.7/100 sq km (2 - 12/100 sq mi), depending on survey site, in 65,800 sq km (25,400 sq mi) of the Tian Shan in Kyrgyzstan
  • An area of 3150 sq km (1210 sq mi) in Pakistan had an estimated density of 1.1 - 1.6 individuals/100 sq km (2.9 - 4.2 individuals /100 sq mi) (Hussain 2003)
Home Range:
  • Home range size and shape is not well known. The home range size of fi ve snow leopards in prime habitat in Nepal ranged from 12 - 39 sq km (4.6 - 15 sq mi), with substantial overlap between individuals and sexes. In Mongolia, where food resources may be scarcer, home ranges of both males and females exceeded 400 sq km (150 sq mi). (McCarthy & Chapron 2003)
  • Prime habitat: 10 - 30 sq km (4 - 12 sq mi); average over large areas: 75 - 100 sq km (30 - 40 sq mi) (Fox 1994)
  • Langu Gorge, Nepal: 12 - 39 sq km (4.5 - 15 sq mi) (average = 21 sq km (8 sq mi)) (Seidensticker & Lumpkin 1991)

References

Ahmad 1994, Arkive, AZA Felid TAG, Buzurukov & Muratov 1994, Cat News 1998c, Cat News 2003a, Cons. Intl. 2005, Curry-Lindahl 1972, Dhungel 1994, Fox 1989, Fox 1991, Fox 1994, Freeman 1986, Hillard 1989, Hunter & Jackson 1997, Hussain 2003, IUCN 1970, IUCN 1994, IUCN 1996, IUCN 2000, IUCN 2003a, IUCN 2004, IUCN Cat Spec. Group, Jackson 1991, Jackson 1999, Jackson & Ahlborn 1989, Jackson & Ahmad 1997, Johnson et al. 2006, Koshkarev 1998, Leopards 1998, Loginov 1997, Maier 1998, Malik 1997, McCarthy & Chapron 2003, Nowell & Jackson 1996, Nowak 1999, Nowak & Paradiso 1983, Oli 1994, Olson & Dinerstein 1998, Olson & Dinerstein 1999, Osborne 1983, Pala 2003, Schaller 1979, Schaller et al. 1988, Schaller et al. 1988a, Schaller et al. 1994, Schaller 1998, Seidensticker & Lumpkin 1991, Tserendeleg 1997, Yamaguchi 2001


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