Updated: Jan 19
The snow leopard (Panthera uncia), also known as the ounce, is a large cat native to the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia. It is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List because the global population is estimated to number less than 10,000 mature individuals and is expected to decline about 10% by 2040. It is threatened by poaching and habitat destruction following infrastructural developments. It inhabits alpine and subalpine zones at elevations from 3,000 to 4,500 m (9,800 to 14,800 ft), ranging from eastern Afghanistan, the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, to southern Siberia, Mongolia and western China. In the northern range countries, it also lives at lower elevations.
Taxonomically, the snow leopard was long classified in the monotypic genus Uncia. Since phylogenetic studies revealed the relationships among Panthera species, it is considered a member of this genus. Two subspecies were described based on morphological differences, but genetic differences between the two have not been confirmed. It is therefore regarded a monotypic species.
Naming and etymology
Both the Latinized specific epithet uncia and the occasional English name ounce are derived from the Old French once, originally used for the European lynx. Once itself is believed to have arisen by false splitting from an earlier variant of lynx, lonce – where lonce was interpreted as l’once, in which l’ is the elided form of the French definite article la (‘the’), leaving once to be perceived as the animal’s name. This, like the English version ounce, came to be used for other lynx-sized cats, and eventually for the snow leopard.
The word panther derives from classical Latin panthēra, itself from the ancient Greek pánthēr (πάνθηρ).
Taxonomy and evolution
Felis uncia was the scientific name used by Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber in 1777 who described a snow leopard based on an earlier description by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, assuming that the cat occurred in Barbary, Persia, East India, and China. Uncia was proposed by John Edward Gray in 1854 who grouped Asian cats with a long and thick tail into this genus.
Felis irbis was proposed by Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg in 1830 who described a skin of a female snow leopard collected in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. He also clarified that several leopard skins were previously misidentified as snow leopard skins. Felis uncioides was proposed by Thomas Horsfield in 1855 for a snow leopard skin presented to the Museum of the East India Company.
Uncia was used by Reginald Innes Pocock in 1930 when he reviewed skins and skulls of Panthera species from Asia. He also described morphological differences between leopard (P. pardus) and snow leopard skins. Panthera baikalensis-romanii was proposed by a Russian scientist in 2000 for a dark brown snow leopard skin from the Petrovsk-Zabaykalsky District, southern Transbaikal region.
It has been subordinated to the genus Panthera based on results of phylogenetic studies. Until spring 2017, there was no evidence available for the recognition of subspecies. Results of a phylogeographic study published in September 2017 indicate that three subspecies should be recognised: P. u. uncia in the Pamir Mountains range countries, P. u. uncioides in the Himalayas and Qinghai, and P. u. irbis in Mongolia.
Based on phylogenetic analysis of DNA sequence sampled across the living Felidae, the snow leopard forms a sister group with the tiger. Genetic divergence time of this group is estimated at 4.62 to 1.82 million years. The snow leopard and the tiger probably diverged between 3.7 and 2.7 million years ago. Panthera originates most likely in northern Central Asia. Panthera blytheae excavated in western Tibet’s Ngari Prefecture is the oldest known Panthera species and exhibits skull characteristics similar to the snow leopard.
A 2016 study revealed that the mitochondrial genomes of snow leopards, lions and leopards are more similar to each other than their nuclear genomes, indicating that the ancestors of snow leopards hybridised with those of lions and leopards at some point in their evolution.
The snow leopard’s fur is whitish to gray with black spots on head and neck, but larger rosettes on the back, flanks and bushy tail. The belly is whitish. Its eyes are pale green or grey in color. Its muzzle is short and its forehead domed. Its nasal cavities are large. The fur is thick with hairs between 5 and 12 cm (2.0 and 4.7 in) long. Its body is stocky, short-legged and slightly smaller than the other cats of the genus Panthera, reaching a shoulder height of 56 cm (22 in), and ranging in head to body size from 75 to 150 cm (30 to 59 in). Its tail is 80 to 105 cm (31 to 41 in) long. It weighs between 22 and 55 kg (49 and 121 lb), with an occasional large male reaching 75 kg (165 lb) and small female of under 25 kg (55 lb). Its canine teeth are 28.6 mm (1.13 in) long and are more slender than those of the other Panthera species. In relation to the length of its skull and width of its palate, it has large nasal openings, which allow for increasing the volume of air inhaled with each breath, and at the same time for warming and humidifying cold dry air.
The snow leopard shows several adaptations for living in a cold, mountainous environment. Its small rounded ears help to minimize heat loss. Its broad paws well distribute the body weight for walking on snow, and have fur on their undersides to increase the grip on steep and unstable surfaces; it also helps to minimize heat loss. Its long and flexible tail helps to maintain balance in the rocky terrain. The tail is also very thick due to fat storage, and is very thickly covered with fur, which allows the cat to use it like a blanket to protect its face when asleep.
Distribution and habitat
The snow leopard is distributed from the west of Lake Baikal through southern Siberia, in the Kunlun Mountains, in the Russian Altai mountains, Sayan and Tannu-Ola Mountains, in the Tian Shan, across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to the Hindu Kush in eastern Afghanistan, Karakoram in northern Pakistan, in the Pamir Mountains, and in the high altitudes of the Himalayas in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, and the Tibetan Plateau. In Mongolia, it is found in the Mongolian and Gobi Altai Mountains and the Khangai Mountains. In Tibet, it is found up to the Altyn-Tagh in the north.
Potential snow leopard habitat in the Indian Himalayas is estimated at less than 90,000 km2 (35,000 sq mi) in Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh, of which about 34,000 km2 (13,000 sq mi) is considered good habitat, and 14.4% is protected. In the beginning of the 1990s, the Indian snow leopard population was estimated at roughly 200–600 individuals living across about 25 protected areas.
In summer, snow leopards usually live above the tree line on mountainous meadows and in rocky regions at altitudes from 2,700 to 6,000 m (8,900 to 19,700 ft). In winter, they come down into the forests to altitudes around 1,200 to 2,000 m (3,900 to 6,600 ft). Snow leopards prefer rocky, broken terrain, and can travel without difficulty in snow up to 85 cm (33 in) deep, although they prefer to use existing trails made by other animals.
Snow leopards were recorded by camera traps at 16 locations in northeastern Afghanistan’s isolated Wakhan Corridor. Snow leopards inhabit the following protected areas:
in Pakistan: Chitral National Park in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region, Central Karakoram National Park and Khunjerab National Park in Gilgit-Baltistan, Deosai National Park, Naltar Wildlife Sanctuary, Baltistan Wildlife Sanctuary and several protected areas that are smaller than 300 km2 (120 sq mi);
in India: Hemis National Park, Kishtwar National Park, Dachigam National Park, Gulmarg Wildlife Sanctuary, Hirpora Wildlife Sanctuary, Rangdum Wildlife Reserve, Overa-Aru, Kanji, Gya-Miru and Baltal-Thajwas Wildlife Sanctuaries in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir; Pin Valley National Park, Great Himalayan National Park, Rupi-Bhaba Wildlife Sanctuary, Sechu Tuan Nala Wildlife Sanctuary and Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh; Nanda Devi National Park, Gangotri National Park and Valley of Flowers National Park in Uttarakhand; Khangchendzonga National Park and Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary in the Eastern Himalayas;
in Nepal: Api Nampa Conservation Area, Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve, Shey Phoksundo National Park, Annapurna Conservation Area, Manaslu Conservation Area, Langtang National Park, Sagarmatha National Park, Makalu Barun National Park and Kanchenjunga Conservation Area;
in Bhutan: Jigme Dorji National Park, Wangchuck Centennial National Park, Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary,
in China: Qomolangma National Nature Preserve and Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve on the Tibetan Plateau, Tomur National Conservation Zone in the western Tianshan Mountains, Qilianshan National Nature Reserve in the Qilian Mountains,
in Uzbekistan: Chatkalskiy State Nature Reserve, Zaamin National Park, Ugam-Chatkal National Park, Hissar National Reserve;
in Kazakhstan: Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve
in Kyrgyzstan: Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve, Sary-Chelek Nature Reserve, Besh-Tash State Nature National Park, Kyrgyz-Ata National Park, Karakol National Park, Chychkan Wildlife Refuge;
in Tajikistan: Pamir National Park
in Russia: Katun Nature Reserve, Sayano-Shushenski Nature Reserve
in Mongolia: Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Tsambagarav Uul National Park, Har Us Nuur National Park and Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park
Before 2003, the total wild snow leopard population was estimated at 4,080 to 6,500 individuals. In 2016, the global population was estimated at 4,678 to 8,745 individuals, suggesting that the total number of snow leopards was larger than previously thought.
Behavior and ecology
The snow leopard’s vocalizations include meowing, grunting, prusten, and moaning. It can purr when exhaling. It cannot roar, despite possessing partial ossification of the hyoid bone. This partial ossification was previously thought to be essential for allowing the Panthera cats to roar, but new studies show that the ability to roar is due to other morphological features, especially of the larynx, which are absent in the snow leopard.
Snow leopards are solitary animals, but share a common space. They are active mostly at dawn until early morning and again in afternoons and early evenings. They mostly rest near cliffs and ridges that provide vantage points and shade. In Nepal’s Shey-Phoksundo National Park, the home ranges of five adult radio-collared snow leopards overlapped to a large extent, though they rarely met. Their individual home ranges ranged in size from 12 to 39 km2 (4.6 to 15.1 sq mi). Males moved between 0.5 and 5.45 km (0.31 and 3.39 mi) per day, and females between 0.2 and 2.25 km (0.12 and 1.40 mi), measured in straight lines between survey points, but they often zigzagged in the precipitous terrain. However, they also covered up to 7 km (4.3 mi) in a single night.
In Nepal’s Shey Phoksundo National Park, up to 10 individuals inhabit an area of 100 km2 (40 sq mi); in habitats with sparse prey, though, an area of 1,000 km2 (400 sq mi) supports only five individuals. A study in the Gobi Desert lasting from 2008 to 2014 revealed that adult male snow leopards used a mean home range of 144–270 km2 (56–104 sq mi), while adult females ranged in areas of 83–165 km2 (32–64 sq mi). Their home ranges overlapped less than 20%. These results indicate that about 40% of the 170 protected areas in snow leopard range countries are smaller than the home range of a single male snow leopard.
Like other cats, snow leopards use scent marks to indicate their territories and common travel routes. These are most commonly produced by scraping the ground with the hind feet before depositing urine or scat, but they also spray urine onto sheltered patches of rock. Females with her cubs usually stay together, and they rear them in dens in the mountains for extended periods.
Hunting and diet
The snow leopard is a carnivore and actively hunts its prey. It is an opportunistic hunter and also eats carrion. Its preferred wild prey species are Himalayan blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus), argali (Ovis ammon), markhor (Capra falconeri) and wild goat (C. aegagrus). It also preys on domestic livestock. It prefers prey ranging in weight from 36 to 76 kg (79 to 168 lb), but also hunts smaller mammals such as marmot, pika and vole species. The diet of the snow leopard varies across its range and with the time of year, and depends on prey availability. In the Himalayas, it preys mostly on Himalayan blue sheep and Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica). In the Karakoram, Tian Shan, Altai and Mongolia’s Tost Mountains, its main prey consists of Siberian ibex, Thorold’s deer (Cervus albirostris), Siberian roe deer (Capreolus pygargus) and argali. Other species hunted when available include red panda, wild boar, langur monkey, snow cock and chukar partridge.
Snow leopards prefer to ambush prey from above, using broken terrain to conceal their approach. They will actively pursue prey down steep mountainsides, using the momentum of their initial leap to chase animals for up to 300 m (980 ft). They kill with a bite to the neck, and may drag the prey to a safe location before feeding. They consume all edible parts of the carcass, and can survive on a single Himalayan blue sheep for two weeks before hunting again. Annual prey needs appears to be 20–30 adult blue sheep.
The snow leopard is capable of killing most animals in its range, with the probable exception of the adult male yak. It also eats a significant amount of vegetation, including grass and twigs. Snow leopards have been recorded to hunt in pairs successfully, especially mating pairs.
Where snow leopards prey on domestic livestock, they are subject to conflict with humans. However, even in Mongolia, where wild prey has been reduced, and interactions with humans are common, domestic livestock, mainly domestic sheep, comprises less than 20% of snow leopard diet. Herders kill snow leopards to prevent them from taking their livestock. The loss of prey animals due to overgrazing by domestic livestock, poaching, and defense of livestock are the major drivers for the decreasing population of the snow leopard. The snow leopard has not been reported to attack humans, and appears to be the least aggressive to humans of all big cats. As a result, they are easily driven away from livestock; they readily abandon their kills when threatened, and may not even defend themselves when attacked.
Reproduction and life cycle
Snow leopards become sexually mature at two to three years, and normally live for 15–18 years in the wild. In captivity they can live for up to 25 years. Oestrus typically lasts from five to eight days, and males tend not to seek out another partner after mating, probably because the short mating season does not allow sufficient time. Paired snow leopards mate in the usual felid posture, from 12 to 36 times a day. They are unusual among large cats in that they have a well-defined birth peak. They usually mate in late winter, marked by a noticeable increase in marking and calling. Females have a gestation period of 90–100 days, and the cubs are born between April and June. A litter usually consists of two to three cubs, in exceptional cases also up to seven.
The female gives birth in a rocky den or crevice lined with fur shed from her underside. The cubs are blind and helpless at birth, although already with a thick coat of fur, and weigh from 320 to 567 g (11.3 to 20.0 oz). Their eyes open at around seven days, and the cubs can walk at five weeks and are fully weaned by 10 weeks. The cubs leave the den when they are around two to four months of age, but remain with their mother until they become independent after around 18–22 months. Once independent, they disperse over considerable distances, even crossing wide expanses of flat terrain to seek out new hunting grounds. This likely helps reduce the inbreeding that would otherwise be common in their relatively isolated environments.
Generation length of the snow leopard is eight years.
The major threat to snow leopard populations is poaching and illegal trade of skins and body parts. In China, 103 to 236 animals are poached every year, in Mongolia between 34 and 53, in Pakistan between 23 and 53, in India from 21 to 45, and in Tajikistan 20 to 25. Poaching is linked to prey declines and livestock depredation.
Greenhouse gas emissions will likely cause a shift of the treeline in the Himalayas and a shrinking of the alpine zone, which may reduce snow leopard habitat by 30%.
Numerous agencies are working to conserve the snow leopard and its threatened mountain ecosystems. These include the Snow Leopard Trust, the Snow Leopard Conservancy, the Snow Leopard Network, the Cat Specialist Group, TRAFFIC, and the Panthera Corporation.
These groups and various national governments from the snow leopard’s range, nonprofits, and donors from around the world worked together at the 10th International Snow Leopard Conference in Beijing. Their focus on research, community programs in snow leopard regions, and education programs are aimed at understanding the cat’s needs, as well as the needs of the villagers and herder communities juxtaposed with the snow leopards’ habitats.
Global Snow Leopard Forum
In 2013, government leaders and officials from all 12 countries encompassing the snow leopard’s range (Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) came together at the Global Snow Leopard Forum (GSLF) initiated by the President Almazbek Atambayev of the Kyrgyz Republic, and the State Agency on Environmental Protection and Forestry under the government of the Kyrgyz Republic. The meeting was held in Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, and all countries agreed that the snow leopard and the high mountain habitat it lives in need trans-boundary support to ensure a viable future for snow leopard populations, as well as to safeguard their fragile environment. The event brought together many partners, including NGOs like the Snow Leopard Conservancy, the Snow Leopard Trust, and the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union. Also supporting the initiative were the Snow Leopard Network, the World Bank’s Global Tiger Initiative, the United Nations Development Programme, the World Wild Fund for Nature, the United States Agency for International Development, and Global Environment Facility.
At the GSLF meeting, the 12 range countries signed the Bishkek Declaration to “acknowledge that the snow leopard is an irreplaceable symbol of our nations’ natural and cultural heritage and an indicator of the health and sustainability of mountain ecosystems; and we recognize that mountain ecosystems inhabited by snow leopards provide essential ecosystem services, including storing and releasing water from the origins of river systems benefitting one-third of the world’s human population; sustaining the pastoral and agricultural livelihoods of local communities which depend on biodiversity for food, fuel, fodder, and medicine; and offering inspiration, recreation, and economic opportunities.”
Global Snow Leopard and Eco-system Protection Program
Out of these efforts was formed a cooperative support effort, the Global Snow Leopard and Eco-system Protection Program (GSLEP). The GSLEP is a joint initiative of range country governments, international agencies, civil society, and the private sector. Its goal is to secure the long-term survival of the snow leopard in its natural ecosystem.
The goal of the GSLEP is for the 12 snow leopard range countries, with support from conservation agencies, NGOs and others to work together to identify and secure at least 20 healthy populations of snow leopards across the cat’s range by 2020, or “20 by 2020”. Many of these populations will cross international boundaries.
The three criteria that will secure healthy populations of snow leopards are populations that represent at least 100 breeding age snow leopards, contain adequate and secure prey populations and have connectivity to other snow leopard populations.
This is an interim goal for the years through to 2020. During the coming years, agreement will be reached on the steps needed to achieve the ultimate goal of ensuring that healthy snow leopard populations remain the icon of the mountains of Asia for generations to come.
2015 designated International Year of the Snow Leopard
To help spread the word amongst the people, government authorities, and conservation groups in each range country, 2015 was designated the International Year of the Snow Leopard as part of the GSLEPP’s work. All range-country governments, nongovernmental and inter-governmental organizations, local communities, and various private sector businesses pledged to take the year as an opportunity to further work towards conservation of snow leopards and their high-mountain ecosystems.
In 2008, there were approximately 600 snow leopards in zoos around the world. In the Richmond Metropolitan Zoo in Virginia, in the United States of America, snow leopard cubs were born in 2016.
Relationships with humans
Attacks on humans
Snow leopard attacks on humans are rare; only two instances are known. On July 12, 1940, in Maloalmaatinsk gorge near Almaty, a rabid snow leopard attacked two men during the day and inflicted serious injuries on both. In the second case, not far from Almaty, an old, toothless, emaciated snow leopard unsuccessfully attacked a passerby in winter; it was captured and carried to a local village. There are no other records of any snow leopard attacking a human being.
A 2008 Natural World episode, “Snow Leopard – Beyond the Myth”, interviewed a couple with a goat farm in Pakistan; the woman was bowled over by a snow leopard escaping an enclosure where it had been feeding on the livestock, but she was not attacked by the cat, despite fainting and being helpless. The film crew went to some lengths to demonstrate that the cat was primarily hunting wild prey and was often ranging far outside the area, as they hoped to prevent local farmers from shooting it. Nevertheless, they also found evidence of other sightings of the cats around nearby human settlements, and of repeated attacks on livestock (some of them unsuccessful).
Snow leopards have symbolic meaning for Turkic peoples of Central Asia, where the animal is known as irbis or bars, so it is widely used in heraldry and as an emblem.
The snow leopard in heraldry is sometimes known in English as the ounce. The cat has long been used as a political symbol, the Aq Bars (‘White Leopard’), by Tatars, Kazakhs, and Bulgars, among others. A snow leopard is found on the official seal of the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, and the former 10,000 Kazakhstani tenge banknote also featured one on the reverse. A mythical winged Aq Bars is found in the national coat of arms of Tatarstan, the seal of the city of Samarqand, Uzbekistan, and (also with a crown) the old coat of arms of the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan. In Kyrgyzstan, it has been used in highly stylized form in the modern emblem of the capital, Bishkek, and the same art has been integrated into the badge of the Kyrgyzstan Girl Scouts Association. A crowned snow leopard features in the arms of Shushensky District, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia.
The Snow Leopard award, given to Soviet mountaineers who scaled all five of the Soviet Union’s 7,000-meter peaks, is named after the animal, but does not depict one.
The snow leopard is the state animal of Himachal Pradesh. It is also depicted on the patch of the Ladakh Police. It has also been declared the “national animal” of Pakistan.
In the media
Documentary footage of the snow leopard is scarce. While such coverage would not be remarkable with regard to common species, wildlife video of the snow leopard is difficult to obtain due to the animal’s rarity and the human inaccessibility to much of its natural habitat.
The BBC One TV series Planet Earth had a segment on snow leopards. The series took some of the first video of snow leopards in the wild, and also featured a snow leopard hunting a markhor. The episode “Mountains” of Planet Earth II, aired in November 2016, featured the rather violent mating fights of snow leopards, as well as a snow leopard’s chuffing and wailing.
Nisar Malik, a Pakistani journalist, and Mark Smith, a cameraman who had worked on the Planet Earth segment, spent a further 18 months filming snow leopards in the Hindu Kush for the BBC Two series Natural World episode “Snow Leopard – Beyond the Myth”. The cat has been featured in segments of other episodes of the same series.
The PBS/WNET series Nature focused on the species in its episode “Silent Roar: Searching for the Snow Leopard”.
A snow leopard named Dawa along with her cubs is one of the focal points of the 2017 Disneynature film Born in China.
In Peter Matthiessen’s 1978 travelogue The Snow Leopard, he recounts his two-month search with naturalist George Schaller for snow leopards in Nepal.
In Philip Pullman’s 1995–2000 fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, Lord Asriel’s dæmon is a snow leopard named Stelmaria.
Tai Lung, the main antagonist of the 2008 film Kung Fu Panda, is an anthropomorphized snow leopard.
In the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, photojournalist Sean O’Connell, played by Sean Penn, is shown photographing snow leopards in Afghanistan.
Chak’ku, a snow leopard, is one the main characters in the Pakistani animated film Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor. It aims to shed light on the preservation and poaching of snow leopards. The main characters apart from Chak’ku are a markhor named Mehru and a chukar partridge named Hero.