These rare, beautiful gray leopards are insulated by thick hair, and their wide, fur-covered feet act as natural snowshoes. Snow leopards have powerful legs and are tremendous leapers, able to jump as far as 50 feet (15 meters). They use their long tails for balance and as blankets to cover sensitive body parts against the severe mountain chill.
Snow leopards live in the high, rugged mountains of Central Asia. Their range extends through twelve countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Snow leopards are usually found between 3,000 and 5,400 meters above sea level. The environment at this elevation is harsh and forbidding. The climate is cold and dry; the mountain slopes sparsely vegetated with grasses and small shrubs.
Snow leopards prefer steep, broken terrain of cliffs, rocky outcrops, and ravines. This type of habitat provides good cover and clear views to help them sneak up on their prey.
The snow leopard is a powerful hunter, able to kill prey three times its weight. The snow leopard's diet varies across its range, but the cat most commonly hunts wild sheep and goats. The two most important large prey species are the blue sheep, of the Himalayas and Tibet, and the Asiatic ibex, a wild goat found throughout the major mountain ranges of central Asia.
Snow leopards also eat smaller animals, especially in the summer months. Small prey include marmots, pikas, hares, other small rodents, and game birds like the Tibetan snowcock and chukor partridge.
The snow leopard mating season is between January and mid-March. Males and females are together for only a short time during the mating season, and males are not involved with cub rearing.
Female snow leopards are pregnant for 93 to 110 days, and cubs are born in June or July. Usually 2 or 3 cubs are born in a litter. In the wild, it might be hard for a mother cat to successfully raise more than 2 or 3 cubs because of the difficulty of feeding them.
Cubs are small and helpless when they are born, and do not open their eyes until they are about 7 days. However, at about 2 months, cubs eat their first solid food. By 3 months they are following their mother around, learning how to hunt and other snow leopard behavior.
An estimated 3,500 to 7,000 wild snow leopards roam the mountains of central Asia today. In addition, there are between 600 and 700 snow leopards in zoos around the world. Snow leopards were once heavily hunted for their pelts which sold for a very high price in the fur market. Also, their bones and other body parts are valued in traditional Asian medicine. Loss of habitat, persecution, and competition with humans for prey also threaten the species. Snow leopards do well in captivity, and conservation efforts have helped some, bringing the current population to 6000 (up from 1000 in the 1960s).
Copyright 2012 GoogleImages and Kim Jerantowski