A young snow leopard prowls through the snow

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Snow Leopard Conservation

Ghost of the Mountain

High in the frozen, rugged mountains of Central Asia, the air is thin, the snow is thick, and extinction looms over the snow leopard. Even though they’re perfectly adapted to sub-zero temperatures and unforgiving terrain, these mysterious cats are struggling to survive. Habitat loss, poaching, and deadly clashes with humans have pushed them to the brink of extinction.

A beautiful snow leopard stands in the snow

Snow leopards have an uncanny, almost mystical ability to disappear among the rocks and snow, which has earned them the nickname "ghost cat of the mountains."

Poached for Pelts and Parts

Snow leopards are known for their thick, silky coats, which feature dark rosettes on a white, pale gold, or soft gray background. They have the densest fur of all cats, an adaptation that helps them thrive in deep snow and extreme cold.

Those beautiful coats make snow leopards appealing to poachers, who hunt the cats for their pelts and body parts. Skins are sold on an international black market, while bones, claws, and other body parts are used in traditional Asian medicine.

Recent population surveys indicate that there could be as few as 3,500 snow leopards in the wild. If one snow leopard is poached every day, as research suggests, these cats could be extinct in 10 years. But the number of snow leopard poachings could actually be much higher than one per day. Because pelts and parts are sold covertly, reliable, comprehensive data is difficult to compile.

A majestic snow leopard rests in the snow under a pine tree

At the top of the world, where altitudes soar to 20,000 feet and temperatures plummet to -40 degrees Fahrenheit, snow leopards prowl vertical mountainsides with ease and disappear effortlessly among the rocks and snow.

Losing Ground

Snow leopards prefer steep, rocky terrain with cliffs and ravines that they can use for sneaking up on prey. Swift, nimble, and silent, these stealthy hunters use the deep snow and rugged terrain to their advantage. But the highest mountains in the world are experiencing warmer temperatures every year, which has altered the fragile high-elevation ecosystem, changed the landscape, and reduced usable habitat.

As more of their mountain habitat is modified for mining, livestock grazing, and other developments, snow leopards have a harder time finding food. Domestic sheep, goats, horses, and yaks are overgrazing the mountain pastures that wild sheep and goats once fed on. With a decrease in available wild prey, snow leopards sometimes hunt livestock in desperation. Snow leopards also have to compete with human hunters, who sometimes poach wild sheep and goats.

A snow leopard sits on a rocky outcrop, high on a mountainside, in the snow

Extremely shy, very well camouflaged, and mostly active at dawn and dusk, snow leopards are rarely seen by people or each other. They are solitary and nomadic, and only come together during breeding season.

Deadly Conflicts with Humans

Habitat loss is forcing elusive snow leopards out of their remote, craggy homes, putting them in more frequent contact with humans. Sometimes the encounters are peaceful, but more often they're not.

Well adapted to the freezing temperatures and steep terrain of the highest mountains in the world, snow leopards prefer to prey on wild goats sheep, and small mammals like rodents, hare, and game birds. But when there isn’t enough to eat, they'll prey on livestock in desperation, resulting in deadly conflicts with herders and farmers.

A close-up of a snow leopard's face, sprinkled with snow

Snow leopards are mellow, shy, and prefer to avoid people entirely. There are no documented reports of a snow leopard ever attacking a human, making them unique among large cats.

You Can Help

Wild cats around the world are in danger of disappearing forever. Wildlife trafficking, habitat loss, and deadly conflicts with people have devastated cat populations, bringing many species to the brink of extinction, but you can save them.

With your support, we can protect wild cats worldwide and halt their decline. Your tax-deductible donation to the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy will help save wild cats around the world.

photo credits | all images iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images | hero image: June Jacobsen | snow leopard in blue light: Aleksandr_Denisyuk | snow leopard under pine tree: Thorsten Spoerlein | snow leopard crouched on rock: through-my-lens | snow leopard close up: Michael Rolands