Snow leopard

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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A snow leopard photographed at Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, Illinois.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is the snow leopard?

These spotted leopards live in the mountains across a vast range of Asia. They are insulated by thick hair—in shades of gray or creamy yellow and covered with grayish black spots—and their wide, fur-covered feet act as natural snowshoes. Snow leopards have powerful legs and are tremendous jumpers, able to leap as far as 50 feet. These big cats use their long tails for balance and as blankets to cover sensitive body parts against the severe mountain chill. They are shy and reclusive, and rarely seen in the wild.

Habitat

Snow leopards can be found throughout high mountain ranges, including the Himalayas and the southern Siberian mountains in Russia. They can also be found in the Tibetan Plateau and across a range that stretches from China to the mountains of Central Asia. They prefer steep, rugged terrain with rocky outcrops where prey can be hard to come by. That’s why these carnivores require an enormous amount of space to roam: Male leopards require up to 80 square miles—an area bigger than three Manhattans—while females have ranges of up to 48 square miles.

Diet and hunting

Snow leopards prey upon the blue sheep (bharal) of Tibet and the Himalayas, as well as the mountain ibex found over most of the rest of their range. Though these powerful predators can kill animals three times their weight, they also eat smaller fare, such as marmots, hares, and game birds.

One Indian snow leopard, protected and observed in a national park, is reported to have consumed five blue sheep, nine Tibetan woolly hares, 25 marmots, five domestic goats, one domestic sheep, and 15 birds in a single year.

Threats to survival

The expansion of human settlement, especially livestock grazing, has led to increased conflict. Herders sometimes kill snow leopards to prevent or retaliate against predation of their domestic animals. Their lives are also threatened by poaching, driven by illegal trades in pelts and in body parts used for traditional Chinese medicine. These cats appear to be in dramatic decline—they've lost at least 20 percent of their population in two decades as a result.

Vanishing habitat and the decline of the cats’ large mammal prey are also contributing factors. Climate change is raising the average temperature across the snow leopard’s home range, which scientists believe will shrink the species' alpine habitat and drive competition with other predators like leopards, wild dogs, and tigers. For these reasons, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies snow leopards as vulnerable to extinction.

Conservation

In recent years, a concerted effort has begun to save snow leopards. Protected areas have been established throughout their range, including sanctuaries in Afghanistan, Mongolia, and Kyrgyzstan. The latter was particularly good news: Kyrgyzstan’s mountains serve as a corridor for snow leopards traveling between the northern and southern ends of their range.

That said, creating protected areas for these big cats has only helped so much: According to one study, 40 percent of those protected areas are too small for the wide-roaming snow leopard.

Countries have also been strengthening their enforcement against poaching, and conservation groups work with herders to develop systems to keep snow leopards away from their livestock. Others are building awareness about the important role these big cats play in their environment. As a flagship species, snow leopards are essentially a mascot for their entire ecosystem: If they survive, so will many of the other species in their habitat.

Snow Leopards 101

Snow leopards—one of the world’s most elusive cats—are perfectly equipped to thrive in extreme, high-elevation habitats. Learn about these felines and how they expertly hunt agile prey.