Snow leopard on a rocky ledge. ©Getty Images

Snow leopard on a rocky ledge. ©Getty Images

Habitat and Distribution (where they are found)

©Getty Images

©Getty Images

These rare leopards live at high altitudes between 600 and 2,980 metres in the cold,  rugged mountains of Central Asia. Their range spans from Afghanistan, Kazakstan and Russia in the north to India and China in the east. They have already disappeared from Mongolia. They live in very remote areas, and few people see snow leopards in the wild. The habitat is rocky with little vegetation. It is cold and dry. There are areas where the snow is deep.

Body and appearance

Their fur gives them good camouflage in their habitat. ©Getty Images

Their fur gives them good camouflage in their habitat. ©Getty Images

Snow leopards are medium-sized cats, about 61 cm tall at the shoulder, and about 100 to 130 cm from nose to the base of the tail. Added to this length is a thick tail almost a metre long.

A snow leopard weighs up to about 55 kilograms. Their front legs are shorter than their strong back legs, which power the animal's tremendous leaps of up to 15m and helps them balance on rocky ledges.

Snow leopard bodies are adapted to the cold, harsh conditions of their habitat. Special nostrils warm the icy air before it reaches their lungs. The soles of their large paws are furry so they can walk on snow. Their long body fur has a thick layer of different fur close to the skin to keep them warm and dry. Snow leopards curl up and wrap their long, thick tail around their body and face for extra warmth when they sleep.

Snow leopard markings on its thick fur ©Getty Images

Snow leopard markings on its thick fur ©Getty Images

The colour of their fur ranges from white or cream to pale grey.  Their markings are open spots called rosettes, ranging from dark grey to black. This colouration gives excellent camouflage in the rocky slopes where they hunt.

They are so elusive that they are also known as 'mountain ghosts'.  Unlike other big cats, whose eyes are a golden colour, snow leopards have light green or grey eyes.

Behaviours

Snow leopards are crepuscular, which means they are mostly active at dawn and dusk. They are solitary, which means they live alone, except for mothers with cubs. Snow leopards cannot roar.

Diet

Snow leopards are carnivores. They hunt and eat bharal, or blue sheep, in the Himalayas, as well as the mountain ibex found over most of the rest of their range. They also eat smaller animals such as birds, marmots, and hares.

 

A snow leopard cub. ©Getty Images

A snow leopard cub. ©Getty Images

Life Cycle

Males and females mate some time between January and March. Cubs are born about three and a half months later. Females give birth to two or three cubs in small rocky caves lined with their fur.  

When they are just over three months old, cubs start to follow their mother as she hunts, and they stay with her through their first winter.

 

Conservation Status and Threats

Snow leopards are classified as Endangered.  Their survival is threatened because they are killed for their fur, and also for body parts that are used in making traditional medicines. These medicines can all be made without animal body parts nowadays, but the belief remains that they have magical powers.

They wrap the long, thick tail around their face for warmth when they curl up to sleep. ©Getty Images

They wrap the long, thick tail around their face for warmth when they curl up to sleep. ©Getty Images

The habitat is also vanishing,  as well as their prey declining, which further threatens the survival of these cats. Efforts to conserve snow leopard numbers include habitat protection, education of the people who live in snow leopard habitat, and very stiff penalties for poachers and for anyone buying the illegal furs.

Many zoos around the world are breeding snow leopards in the hope that they can one day be released back into the wild.

 

Read more about snow leopards:

http://www.nwf.org/Kids/Ranger-Rick/Animals/Mammals/Snow-Leopards.aspx

Watch videos of snow leopards:

http://www.arkive.org/snow-leopard/panthera-uncia/