Snow Leopard

Description and biology

The snow leopard, or ounce, has a beautiful coat of long, pale gray fur with white underneath. Its coat is patterned with solid black spots on its head and legs and dark gray rosettes (rings) on the rest of its body.

The animal is smaller than its closest relative, the leopard. An average snow leopard has a head and body length of 48 to 56 inches (122 to 142 centimeters) and weighs 132 to 165 pounds (60 to 75 kilograms).

Its heavy, thickly furred tail measures 32 to 40 inches (81 to 102 centimeters). The snow leopard has thick chest muscles for climbing and large, heavily padded forepaws for walking through snow. An excellent leaper, the animal can jump as far as 50 feet (15 meters) in a single bound.

Snow leopards usually hunt at dusk or at night. While their preferred prey is the bharal (a goatlike mammal), they also hunt yak, marmots, musk deer, and domestic livestock. An individual snow leopard ’s home range extends from 5 to 15 square miles (13 to 39 square kilometers). Like other big cats, snow leopards are solitary animals.

Males and females come together only to mate in late winter. After a gestation (pregnancy) period of 98 to 103 days, a female snow leopard gives birth to one to four cubs. The cubs nurse for at least two months and remain dependent on their mother for up to a year.

Habitat and current distribution

Snow leopards inhabit mountain ranges in central Asia. Their entire range covers a massive area of almost 1,000,000 square miles (2,590,000 square kilometers). However, these rare and endangered animals sparsely populate this area.

Biologists (people who study living organisms) estimated in 1996 that the snow leopard population was below 2,500 breeding adults in the wild and declining.

Snow leopards are normally found in dry alpine and subalpine regions above 9,840 feet (3,000 meters). During summer months, when their prey moves to higher pastures, snow leopards may climb to an altitude of 13,000 feet (3,960 meters).

History and conservation measures

Along with other spotted cats, the snow leopard has long been hunted for its prized coat. Although current international treaties protect the animal, poachers still hunt down the snow leopard and sell it illegally. Because some of the animal’s habitat is not easy to reach, officials have a difficult time enforcing the snow leopard’s protective rights.

Snow leopards are also threatened by human development. As human populations have grown in the region and snow leopard habitat has been converted into agricultural land for livestock, the animal’s traditional prey has become scarce. Forced to feed on domestic animals, the snow leopard has become a target for angry farm and ranch owners.

Unless large areas of its natural habitat are preserved, the continued existence of the snow leopard is in jeopardy.