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.
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.
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.
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.
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