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SNOW LEOPARD : A highly secretive cat

Snow leopards (Uncia uncia or Panthera uncia) are fairly large cats and are native to the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia. They live between 3,000 and 5,500 meters (9,800 and 18,000 ft) above sea level in the rocky mountain ranges. Although the total area of its range is extremely large the actual areas in which it is found are comparatively small and fragmented. This has led to difference of opinions amongst experts on the sub-speciation of the snow leopard. The cats found in the north of the range are by and large classified as Uncia uncia uncia whilst those in the south, Uncia uncia uncioides. However, some suggest that due to the fragmentation of the species within those broad areas, genetic differences may exist and further sub-speciation may well be necessary. Due to their very secretive nature their exact numbers are not known, but it is estimated that between 3,500 and 7,000 individuals exist in the wild and between 600 and 700 in various zoos of the world.

These mountain dwelling cats have several adaptations for living in freezing cold environment. Their bodies are stocky, fur is thick and wooly and the ears are small and rounded. This helps in minimizing heat loss. Their wide paws distribute their weight better for walking on snow, and have fur on their undersides to increase their grip on steep and unstable surfaces; this also helps to minimize heat loss. Leopards’ tail, which is very thick due to storage of fats, is thickly covered with fur. It is long and flexible and helps in maintaining the balance on steep and rocky terrain they inhabit. Tail is also used like a blanket to protect their faces while sleeping.

These cats have short muzzle and domed forehead; the head is rounded and comparatively small for their body size; their nasal cavities are unusually large so that they can breathe properly even in the thin, cold air of their mountainous environment. In appearance, they are strikingly different from the common leopard.  Base color of their coat varies from smoky gray to yellowish tan, with lighter, often white fur on its belly, chest and chin. Their rosettes are open, less well defined and are spaced further apart. They are dark gray to black in color with small spots of the same color on their heads and larger spots on their legs and tail. Unusual for cats, their eyes are pale green or gray in color.

They are smaller than the other ‘big cats’ but, like them, display a range of sizes, generally weighing between 27 and 55 kilograms (60 and 120 lb). Length of the body ranges from 75 to 130 centimeters (30 to 50 in), with tail adding an additional 75 to 90 per cent of that length. At shoulders these cats stand about 60 cm (24 in).

These secretive creatures do not roar, despite possessing some ossification of the hyoid bone. Previously it was thought that the ossification is essential for allowing the big cats to roar, but recent studies have found that the capability to roar is due to other morphological features, particularly of the larynx (commonly called the voice box) that are absent in the snow leopards. These leopards’ vocalization includes wailing, growls, hisses, chuffing and mews.

Snow Leopard

Evolution and Taxonomy

This cat was first described in 1775 by Schreber, in the Kopet-Dagh Mountains near Iran. In the past, many scientists placed this animal in the genus Panthera, together with the other large existing felids, but later it was positioned in its own genus, Uncia. It was thought not to be closely related to leopards (Panthera pardus). A recent molecular study claims that the snow leopard is a closest relative of tiger (Panthera tigris), hence it has been placed within the genus Panthera. Its exact position remains unclear, and many sources still treat it as Uncia pending further studies.

A few subspecies of snow leopard have been proposed for the populations living in different geographical regions. With the possible exception of U. u. baikalensis-romanii, which requires further evaluation, these subspecies were generally not considered valid. The Handbook of the Mammals of the World recognizes two subspecies: U. u. uncia, from central Asia northwestwards to Mongolia and Russia; and U. u. uncioides in western China and the Himalayas. They are large creatures with lots of spots.

Etymology

Both Latinized genus name, Uncia, and the occasional English name “ounce” are taken from the Old French once, initially used for the European lynx. “Once” itself is understood to have arisen by back-formation from an earlier word “lonce“ – the “L” of “lonce” was construed as an abbreviated “le” (“the“), leaving “once” to be seen as the animal’s name. This, like the English version “ounce“, came into use for other lynx-sized cats too and ultimately for the snow leopard.

In their range these cats are called with various different local common names, e.g. barfani chita – “snow cheetah” (Urdu), shan (Ladakhi), waawrin prraang (Pashto), irves (Mongolian) and bars or barys (Kazakh).

Behavior

During summers these cats usually live above the ‘tree line’ (altitude beyond which trees are unable to grow because of inappropriate environmental conditions – usually severe cold, lack of moisture and enough oxygen) in rocky regions and on mountainous meadows at an altitude from 2,700 to 6,000 m (8,900 to 20,000 ft). As summer gives way to winter, snow leopards will follow its migrating prey down below the tree line to the lowland forests at the altitude of around 1,200 to 2,000 m (3,900 to 6,600 ft). However, the cat is rarely associated with dense forestation. These felids prefer broken terrain and can move, without any difficulty, in snow up to 85 centimeters (33 in) deep, although snow leopards prefer to use existing trails made by other animals.

They usually lead solitary life, although mothers may rear cubs in dens in the mountains for extended periods. An individual leopard inhabits within a well-defined home range, but does not defend its territory aggressively when encroached upon by other individuals. Home ranges vary to a large extent from region to region. In places like Nepal, where availability of prey is quite high, a home range may be as small as 12 km2 (5 sq mi) to 40 km2 (15 sq mi) and up to five to ten animals are found here per 100 km2 (40 sq mi); on the other hand where prey base is low an area of 1,000 km2 (400 sq mi) may have only five individuals!!!!

Snow leopards too, like other cats, use scent marks to mark their territory and common travel routes. These are most frequently produced by scraping the ground with the hind feet before urinating or depositing scat. They also spray urine onto sheltered patches of rock.

These animals are crepuscular, being most active at dawn and dusk. They are known for being extremely secretive and well camouflaged.

Hunting and diet

These carnivores are active hunters, though, like all cats, they are opportunistic feeders, eating whatever meat they can find, including carrion and domestic livestock.

They can kill animals three times their size, such as the Bharal also known as blue sheep, Himalayan Tahr or the common thar and Markhor (both are large ungulate related to the wild goat), but will readily take much smaller prey such as hares, marmots and birds. Unusually among cats, snow leopards also eat a significant amount of vegetation, including grass and twigs.

The diet of these predators varies across its range depending on various factors like availability of prey and the time of the year, etc. In the Himalayas, bharals (Himalayan blue sheep) constitute most of its diet, but in other mountain ranges such as the Altai, Karakoram and Tian Shan, it is mainly Siberian ibex and argali, a type of wild sheep. Now argali has become rarer in some parts of the snow leopard’s range. Other large preys include various types of wild sheep and goats (such as urials also known as the arkars or shapo and markhors), other goat-like ruminants such as gorals and Himalayan tahr, plus deer, boars, and langur monkeys. Smaller prey species include pikas, marmots, woolly hares, various rodents, and birds such as the snow cock and chukar.

These predators are not averse to taking domestic livestock and this brings them into direct conflict with humans; consequently many are killed by the herders. Some conservation organizations are now working in cooperation with local inhabitants to help educate them in the need for conservation management and to supply financial compensation for the loss of domestic stock.

Snow leopards have not been reported to attack humans, and appear to be among the least aggressive of all the large cats. They can be easily driven away. They readily abandon their kills when threatened and may not even defend themselves when attacked.

Ambush

Snow leopards adopt ‘ambush and kill’ strategy while hunting, using broken terrain to conceal their approach. Usually the animal is a solitary hunter but may share the task with its mate during breeding season. With their powerful legs they can leap as far as 15 meters (50 ft) and actively pursue prey down the steep mountainsides, using the momentum of their initial leap to chase animals for up to 300 meters (980 ft). After the prey has been brought down it is killed with a bite to the neck. These animals may drag their kill to a safe location before feeding. Snow leopards consume all edible parts of the carcass, and can survive on a single bharal for two weeks before going for hunting again. When the prey is large snow leopard remains close to its kill and return over a period of three to four days to feed.

Reproduction and life cycle

Snow leopards are odd among large cats in the sense that they have a well-defined birth peak. The mating usually takes place in late winter between January and March, marked by a noticeable increase in marking and calling. The gestation period in these animals last for about 90–100 days; the cubs are born between April and June. This ensures that a food source is abundant and less effort is needed to secure a kill. Oestrus usually lasts from five to eight days, and males tend not to seek out another partner after mating; the reason may be the short mating season does not permit ample time. Mating takes place in the usual felid posture, from 12 to 36 times a day.

Like many wild cats snow leopard female too gives birth in a rocky den or crevice lined with fur shed from her underside. Litter sizes vary from one to five cubs, but the average is two. The cubs are blind and helpless at birth, although already with a thick coat of fur, and weigh from 320 to 700 grams. The eyes are opened when they are about a week old, and at five weeks they start walking and are fully weaned by 10 weeks. At the time of birth they have full black spots, which turn into rosettes as they grow up. Cubs have a daily average weight gain of approximately 48g.

Cubs leave their den when they are two to four months old, but remain under maternal care until they become independent after 18–22 months. After becoming independent, they usually disperse over considerable distances, crossing wide expanses to seek out new hunting grounds and territories. This helps in eliminating the chances of inbreeding that would otherwise be common in their comparatively isolated environment. These cats become sexually mature at about three years, and normally live for 15 to 18 years in the wild, although in captivity they can live for up to 21 years.

Distribution

In central and south Asia snow leopard’s habitat is rugged mountainous region covering around 1,230,000 sq km (470,000 sq miles), which extends through twelve countries: India, China, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Russia.

Its geographic distribution runs from the Hindu Kush in eastern Afghanistan and the Syr Darya through the mountains of Pamir Mountains, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kashmir, Kunlun, and the Himalaya to southern Siberia, where the range covers the Russian Altai Mountains, Sajan, Tannu-Ola mountains and the mountains to the west of Lake Baikal. In Mongolia, it is found in the Mongolian and Gobi Altai and the Khangai Mountains. In Tibet it is found up to the Altyn-Tagh in the north.

In India their geographical cover includes a large part of the Western Himalaya including the states of Himachal Pradesh, J&K and Uttarakhand with a sizable population in Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh in Eastern Himalaya.

These felids prefer steep, rugged terrains with rocky outcrops and ravines. This kind of habitat provides good cover and clear view to help them sneak up on their prey. They are found at high elevations of 3000-4500 meters (9800 ft to 14800 ft.), and even higher in the Himalayas. The snowy peaks act as a camouflage for the animal.

Snow Leopard Sightings

Four leopards spotted in the Gangotri National Park (India)

In three months four snow leopards have been spotted by cameras installed inside the Gangotri National Park, which spreads over an area of 2300 sq kilometres in the state of Uttarakhand in India.

Out of these two were spotted on 8 and 9 January 2014. They are very young and are smaller than the other two. A male was captured on camera on November 18, 2013, and female was spotted in the last week of December 2013. The images of the four snow leopards have, for the first time, confirmed their presence in the park.

In Kargil (Jammu and Kashmir – India)

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has captured images of two adult snow leopards in Kargil in India’s Jammu and Kashmir region for the first time since infrared cameras were set up there in mid-2010. The photos taken in Feb 2012 mark the second time photographic evidence of snow leopard’s presence in the area, which is only few kilometers from India’s border with Pakistan, the WWF says.

Researcher Aishwarya Maheshwari took photos of a snow leopard hunting a herd of Asiatic ibex in June 2009. Among the most endangered species of wild cats, snow leopard’s range extends through the high plateaus and mountains of the Himalayas from Afghanistan in the west to India’s Arunachal Pradesh in the east and Mongolia to the north.

On the slopes of Mount Everest (Nepal)

In another incident a Nepal-born biologist has photographed two snow leopards on the slopes of Mount Everest where the cats have not been sighted since 1960s. Som Ale, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois in Chicago of the US, photographed two of the rare cats in May 2005, according to the Earthwatch.org. Ale also saw tracks of two other snow leopards.

These cats are estimated to number only 300 to 500 in Nepal. Ale’s discovery marked the first confirmed sightings of the elusive cats on Nepal’s side of the Everest since the 1960s

Conservation and Challenges

Habitat and Prey loss :- As humans continue to push further into the mountainous areas with their livestock, snow leopards’ habitat is getting boxed-in by increasing human intrusion and becoming degraded and fragmented. Overgrazing has damaged the fragile grasslands, leaving less food for the wild sheep and goats that are the Snow Leopard’s main prey.

Other challenges :- Large part of the leopards’ habitat is exceptionally difficult to access. Since these cats are found at very high altitude, studying them and their current status and distribution is an extremely arduous task.

There are various agencies and groups working on the conservation of snow leopards and their threatened mountain ecosystems. These include the Panthera Corporation, the Snow Leopard Trust, the Snow Leopard Network and the Snow Leopard Conservancy. The above groups and numerous national governments from the snow leopard’s range, non-profits and donors from around the world worked together at the 10th International Snow Leopard Conference held in Beijing some time ago. Their focus on research, educational programs and community programs in snow leopard regions are aimed at understanding the felid’s needs as well as the needs of villagers and herder communities affecting snow leopards’ lives and habitat.

WWF’s involvement :- Compared to other large felid such as tiger, leopard and lion snow leopards are least studied animals in India. Their current range is poorly mapped because of the inhospitable terrain they live in. In India studies had been conducted in some of the protected areas of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir but the rest of the states like Arunchal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and the unprotected areas of snow leopard distribution range had been still unexplored. Keeping this in view WWF-India started project, “Snow leopard conservation: An initiative”, in the states of Uttarakhand (UK) and some of the areas of Himachal Pradesh (HP) which never been explored for snow leopard on a landscape level. The purpose of this project is to gather base-line information such as status and distribution of animals, conflict between snow leopard and humans and the biotic pressure on the cat’s habitat.

Population and protected areas

Snow leopard’s total wild population of was estimated at only 4,080 to 6,590 individuals by McCarthy, et al., 2003 (see table below). Many of these estimates are not very reliable as they are rough and outdated.

This cat was placed on Red List of Threatened Species as globally “Endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1972; the same threat category was applied in the assessment conducted in 2008.

It is also claimed that there are about 600-700 individuals in zoos around the world.

Range Country

 Habitat Area
(km2.)

Estimated
Population

Afghanistan  50,000 100-200?
Bhutan 15,000 100-200?
China 1,100,000 2,000-2,500
India 75,000 200-600
Kazakhstan 50,000 180-200
Kyrgyzstan 105,000 150-500
Mongolia 101,000 500-1,000
Nepal 30,000 300-500
Pakistan 80,000 200-420
Tajikistan 100,000 180-220
Uzbekistan 10,000 20-50

These endangered cats are in dramatic decline mostly because of poaching driven by illegal trade in pelts, which is in great demand for its magnificent fur, and in body parts used for traditional Chinese medicine. Vanishing habitat and the decline in prey base are also major contributing factors. Although the animal is protected in most areas, local hunting and trapping still remains a threat. As with Tigers, snow leopards are also hunted for their bones, which are commonly used in many Chinese medicines.

Much progress has been made in securing the survival of these cats. They are being successfully bred in captivity. Snow Leopards usually give birth to two to three cubs in a litter, but the litter size can reach up to seven in some cases.

Healthy population found in Afghanistan

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has discovered a surprisingly healthy population of this cat in the mountainous reaches of northeastern Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, according to a new study, which appeared in the Journal of Environmental Studies (June 29th 2011). The study is by WCS conservationists Anthony Simms, Zalmai Moheb, Salahudin, Hussain Ali, Inayat Ali and Timothy Wood.

The study is done by using camera traps to document the presence of the animal at 16 various locations across a wide landscape. The images have provided the first camera trap records of snow leopards in Afghanistan.

This is a wonderful discovery – it shows that there is real hope for snow leopards in Afghanistan,” said Peter Zahler, WCS Deputy Director for Asia Programs. “Now our goal is to ensure that these magnificent animals have a secure future as a key part of Afghanistan’s natural heritage.”

The study says, these cats remain threatened in the region. Poaching for their pelts, persecution by shepherds, and the capture of live animals for the illegal pet trade have all been documented in the Wakhan Corridor. In response, WCS has developed a set of conservation initiatives to protect snow leopards. These include partnering with local communities, training of rangers, and education and outreach efforts.

Anthony Simms, lead author and the project’s Technical Advisor, said, “By developing a community-led management approach, we believe snow leopards will be conserved in Afghanistan over the long term.”

WCS-led initiatives are already paying off. Conservation education is now occurring in every school in the Wakhan region. Fifty-nine rangers have been trained to date. They monitor not only snow leopards but other species including Marco Polo sheep and ibex while also enforcing laws against poaching. WCS has also initiated the construction of predator-proof livestock corrals and a livestock insurance program that compensates shepherds, though initial WCS research shows that surprisingly few livestock fall to predators in the region.

One of the many outputs of this project was the creation of Afghanistan’s first national park – Band-e-Amir – which is now co-managed by the government and a committee consisting of all 14 communities living around the park.

Snow leopards have declined by as much as 20 percent over the past 16 years and are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). WCS is a world leader in the care and conservation of snow leopards. WCS’s Bronx Zoo became the first zoo in the Western Hemisphere to exhibit these rare spotted cats in 1903. In the past three decades, nearly 80 cubs have been born in the Bronx and have been sent to live at 30 zoos in the U.S. and eight countries in Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America.

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