LIVING ON THE ROCKY EDGE WITH THE SNOW LEOPARD
Updated: Sep 20
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Being an active photographer, one of the areas of the world I’m eager to visit, is Central Asia (also South Asia for that matter). I enjoy shooting wildlife more than any other subject and Asia contains amazing wildlife which you don’t find anywhere else. Argali big horned sheep, Saiga antelope, Asian lions, Asian bears, and of course the elusive snow leopard. I’ve loved cats since I was a child, all cats from my own adopted kitties to the apex predators of the animal kingdom. I even have a tiger tattooed on my shoulder. Many years I’ve been fascinated with the snow leopard, otherwise known as the ounce. Snow leopards are currently found in the following 12 countries: Russia, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, India, Afghanistan, China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan (now officially known as Kyrgyz Republic). These countries have formed the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program or GSLEP. While it is not actually considered to be endangered, it is listed as vulnerable. Due to the risks facing the snow leopard population, an alliance was formed by countries in the snow leopard range, NGOs, and scientists, to defend the habitat of the snow leopard. The snow leopard is part of the genus panthera. The felid is renowned for it’s shyness, as it will typically run off to avoid any confrontation with humans. It is extremely unlikely to see one in the wild and they are rarely spotted. The first ever recorded photograph of a snow leopard in the wild was taken by the wildlife biologist George Schaller in the region of Chitral Gol, Pakistan in 1970. Schaller later wrote of the encounter, “I SPOTTED THE SNOW LEOPARD on a rocky slope high in the Hindu Kush mountains of northern Pakistan on a December day in 1970. She had a kill, a domestic goat, and at the entrance to a rock cleft nearby were her two small cubs.” See directly below for Schaller’s photograph.
George Schaller, 1970, Pakistan.
Snow leopards are known colloquially as “ghost cats” because they are so seldom seen. The naturalist and novelist Peter Matthiessen once remarked, “Have you seen the snow leopard? No! Isn't that wonderful?” Matthiessen is notable for his work with Schaller during his months long Himalayan expedition in the isolated region of Dolpo, Nepal in 1973. Schaller was attempting to study the Himalayan Bharal, otherwise known as blue sheep. A lightly comedic side note is George Schaller is prominently known for his belief in continued study of Bigfoot. That aside, Schaller is reputed to be one of the finest wildlife biologists to ever live. Their fur varies from smoky gray to yellowish tan. They have dark gray to black rosettes on their bodies and heads with white underneath. They are one of the most beautiful cats in my opinion, along with the jaguar and panther (black jaguar). The snow leopard is efficiently adapted to it’s difficult habitat of rocky mountains, deep snow, and sparse vegetation. Their front legs are short with big paws, accompanied by long back legs. They have robust chests, designed to handle the thin air of high altitude. Snow leopards are recognized for their long fat tail, which they partly use to keep their faces warm when curled up. These listed adaptations help the animals balance on rocky cliffs and maneuver on the tough terrain. Snow leopards are also rugged, athletic cats, with the ability to handle prey three times their weight. They are powerful, deliberate walkers who can cover 25 miles in one night. Snow leopards are acclaimed for their capacity to jump ravines or leap down on top of unsuspecting potential meals. There are different references to their actual ability to leap; one stated 9 meters, another 50 feet, yet another mentioned the ability to leap six times its length. Regardless of which you find more credible, the snow leopard has little trouble bringing down its routine diet of ibex, deer, boar, marmots, and bharal. They are strictly carnivores. Snow leopards are crepuscular, which means they hunt at dawn and dusk. This makes them similar to lions or other apex cats who typically hunt early in the morning.
Snow leopards are genetically closer to tigers then they are actual leopards, even though all three are part of the genus panthera. There has never been though any recorded case of snow leopards attacking humans, as opposed to tigers for example who have killed hundreds of people over the last two centuries in places like India. Regrettably, it is difficult to be sure, but there is believed to be only 4000-7000 snow leopards left in the wild. There are about 600 in zoo captivity currently. Snow leopard ranges continue to decline due to the expansion of human settlements and the expanded grazing their livestock utilize. Snow leopards also face great danger from poaching for their beautiful fur and for their bones used in traditional Chinese medicine as a replacement for more expensive tiger bone. Poachers are also known to kill the parent leopards and sell the cubs to zoos and private collectors. In 1972, the International Union for Conservation of Nature placed the snow leopard on its Red List as endangered. It has now downgraded the snow leopard from endangered to vulnerable, but clearly any quick read about them will denote that the trend is going the other way. The population is dwindling. Since this is a blog and not a scientific paper with APA standards, personally it disgusts me and angers me these poachers who prey on these big cats, along with other animals, pandas, rhinos, elephants, etc. I despise everything about it and especially abhor people who trophy hunt. China authorizes the death penalty for anyone who injures or kills a panda and I’m not sure that all countries shouldn’t follow suit for other protected wildlife. Snow leopards are worth protecting and it will be a travesty if they are completely eradicated from human-wildlife conflict, poaching, climate change, or what have you. The famous zoologist Jack Hanna stated, “The snow leopard is absolutely magnificent. It represents really what endangered species are all about.”