The magnificent snow leopard that stalks the mountains of Central Asia is one cool cat. It needs to be to survive at altitudes above 3,000 metres.
Known as the Ghost of the Mountains, it leads a mostly solitary and mysterious existence but is beautifully equipped for its rugged territory. A dense spotted coat provides excellent camouflage and insulation against the cold, and the leopard's generous tail – measuring almost 1 metre in length – aids balance on the steep slopes while also doubling as a warm wrap. Its thick padded feet act like furred snowshoes and distribute weight evenly over the snow as the leopard negotiates its challenging terrain. Powerful hind legs enable the snow leopard to leap fifteen metres in pursuit of prey such as blue sheep, Argali sheep, ibex, marmots and hares. It’s a strong and stealthy hunter and can bring down animals up to three times its own size. However, life in the mountains is increasingly harsh. Habitat loss, conflict with mountain graziers and the impacts of climate change have reduced snow leopard populations to somewhere between 4,000–6,000 individuals.
What we're doing
WWF's work to protect the snow leopard focusses largely on its sole predator – humans – who routinely kill them in retaliation for attacking livestock and for their body parts. Many killings in remote regions go undetected, but as many as four leopards are thought to die every week. Through education and support for rural development, we are focussed on finding ways for mountain communities to co-exist with snow leopards.
In the Eastern Himalayas, WWF rewards those communities who champion snow leopards. In the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area, in Nepal, we've supported community-based livestock insurance schemes that compensate farmers for livestock losses to snow leopards and helped to construct leopard-proof livestock enclosures. These farmers now see leopards as less of a threat to their livelihoods and are actively contributing to our conservation program.
Habitat loss and climate change
Humans and their livestock are increasingly encroaching on snow leopard habitat. The wild sheep and goats that snow leopards hunt are also declining due to illegal hunting and competition for grazing land and from livestock. Worse still, climate change may further shrink and shift the leopard's available habitat, with the high rate of glacier melt in the high Himalayas. Through the Land of Snow Project, WWF aims to secure key areas of snow leopard habitat in Mongolia.
WWF is installing camera traps, conducting surveys and satellite tracking snow leopards to learn more about their movements and behaviour, including their range, to bolster our conservation initiatives.
Why it matters
Snow leopards play a critical role in their ecosystem as top predators. Their health reflects the health of their high-altitude domain. Without snow leopards, the mountain sheep and goats they prey upon would overgraze alpine plants, leaving little for other wildlife to eat. The same environment also provides food and other resources for people – namely medicines, and wood for shelter and fuel. By protecting the snow leopard, we are helping to safeguard its entire habitat and the many people who rely on it.
Panthera uncia, Uncia uncia
Habitat: Cold high mountains of Central Asia Population: Estimated 4000–6400 individuals Weight: 30-55 kg Head-body length: 90–130 cm; Adult shoulder height: ~60 cm; Tail length: 80–100 cm
Vulnerable (IUCN Red List)
Did you know?
Unlike other big cats, the snow leopard cannot roar.
Illegal wildlife trade and poaching
The illegal wildlife trade knows no borders. International crime networks often use complicated ever-changing transit routes to take advantage of weak governance and inadequate surveillance. In many cases its impact is exacerbated by habitat loss and other pressures.
One in six species is at risk of extinction because of climate change. To survive, plants, animals and birds confronted with climate change have two options: move or adapt. With the speed of climate change we are experiencing already, it’s often not possible for a species to adapt quickly enough to keep up with its changing environment. And with the amount of habitat destruction, moving is becoming increasingly difficult.
Snow leopards have a large home range and are sparsely distributed across 12 countries in Central Asia. They are endangered in all of them. Although counting this elusive species is difficult, we suspect that populations have declined by as much as 20% in the past two decades. Conflict with humans, as a result of snow leopards attacking livestock (sheep, goats, horses and yak calves), poses an immediate threat. These animals now comprise as much as 58% of the snow leopard's diet because illegal hunting has robbed them of what they normally eat – like the Argali sheep prized by local villagers for their meat and medicinal uses. These sheep have all but disappeared from north-eastern China, southern Siberia and parts of Mongolia, so leopards have been forced to switch diets. Increased grazing and human settlements (including the associated roads and mines) have encroached on the habitat of the snow leopard, causing population losses and fragmentation. In recent years, climate change has emerged as a major threat to snow leopards and their fragile mountain habitat – between the tree line and snow line. As the Earth's temperatures rise, trees can survive at higher altitudes, thereby over-running the leopard's preferred habitats. A WWF study (Forrest et al. 2012) predicts about 30% of snow leopard habitat in the Himalaya may be lost due to a shifting tree line and consequent shrinking of the alpine zone.