Monotypic Species - The Snow Leopard
At the end of 2011, Nepal launched its first census of the endangered snow leopard. It is hoped to raise awareness of the animal which is often killed by villagers when the leopards attack their livestock. The census will be the first step in a bid to conserve these beautiful animals. The main threat to their well-being in Nepal is human/wildlife conflict. The northern district of Mustang has been selected for the census. Closed circuit television cameras will be installed at an altitude of about 5,000 metres.
Although it shares its name with the leopard, it is not considered closely related to other members of the Pantherine group. It is classified as a monotypic species – the only member of the genus Uncia uncia. There are two subspecies – one which is found in Asia, Russia and Mongolia (U.u.uncia) and the other in China and the Himilayas (U.u.uncioides). Other monotypic species include the rock hyrax, okapi and edible dormouse.
The main difference between the snow leopard and the other 'big cats' is the inability of the snow leopard to give a full-throated roar due to an under-development of parts of the larynx. There are also quite marked differences in skull characteristics.
The snow leopard is found in mountainous regions of central Asia, from Russia and Mongolia through China and Tibet through to the Himalayan regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and India. Although this indicates a huge range, it is more likely to be confined to pockets of occupation within those regions.
The snow leopard is found at altitudes between 2,000 and 4,000 metres although it is sometimes seen above and below these heights. It frequents rocky outcrops, mountain passes and high ridges. In winter, it is inclined to follow its prey down below the tree line.
The background colour is mostly grey with a brown/yellow tinge on the flanks. The fur on the belly, chest and chin is much lighter, often white. The 'spot's are dark grey to black and are actually broken rosettes over the body and solid spots on the head, legs and tail. The spots are further apart and less well defined than those of the common leopard. The head is comparatively small with small, rounded ears and a distinctive heavy brow. The eyes are an unusual colour for the big cat family being a pale green to grey.
The snow leopard may reach 75cm to 1.3 metres in length and weigh between 27 and 55 kg with the occasional large male reaching 70kg. With their short legs, they stand about 60 cm tall at the shoulder. The paws are wide and spread when taking the animal's weight thus minimising sinking into soft snow. Fur-covered pads aid grip on rocky inclines.
The tail is long and flexible, as long as 90 cm, and helps the cat balance in its mountainous home regions. The tail also contains fat deposits. The legs are relatively short but powerful and the paws are wide. The compact body, wide paws and fatty tail are all adaptations to the extreme climate in which it lives. It has a very thick coat. The whole body, including the tail, is well-furred. When sleeping the tail is curled over the face, protecting it from the cold.
The life span is believed to be 15 to 18 years.
The snow leopard is secretive with excellent camouflage. It is crepuscular meaning that is most active at dawn and dusk. They are opportunistic carnivores, happy to eat whatever turns up.
They are muscular and well built, quite capable of killing prey two to three times their own size and may prey on domestic livestock bringing them into conflict with farmers. They are not generally aggressive toward man.
When hunting, they often stalk their prey before ambushing it from above. They have no trouble leaping 45 feet and will pursue prey down steep mountainsides with ease. They are solitary animals although a pair may hunt together during the mating season. One may stalk the prey while the other lies in wait.
Snow leopards have territories and common travel paths which they mark with urine or scat but they don't defend their territories aggressively. If there is plenty of prey available, territories may be as small as 12 square kilometres with 5 to 10 animals in an area of 100 square kilometres. Where food is not so easily found, there may be only five snow leopards in an area of 1,000 square kilometres.
Because of the severe winters, cubs are always born in the spring. Food is then abundant and hunting easier. Males tend not to seek out a second partner as the breeding season is so short. The gestation period is about 98 days. Mothers give birth in a rocky den lined with fur from her belly. Two cubs is usual and weigh about 320 to 708 grams at birth. The young have fur but are born blind. Cubs have solid black spots which turn into rosettes as they mature. They are fully weaned at ten weeks. Juveniles stay with their mothers until at least 18 months old.
Its main prey are animals of the wild sheep and goat families such as the ibex and Himalayan blue sheep. They also eat deer, boars, langur monkeys, musk deer, marmots, woolly hares, rodents and birds. With large prey, the animal may return over the course of a few days to feed on the carcass. Although they will attack domestic livestock, they are easily driven away and will readily abandon their kill if threatened.
They normally kill with a bit to the neck and may drag their prey off to feed on it in peace. They consume all edible parts and a bharal (blue sheep) will last them for several weeks. Unusually for big cats, they consume a fair amount of grass and twigs.
The snow leopard's main threat is man. Those that kill domestic livestock are hunted down. Although protected in most areas, It is still hunted for its fur and bones. The latter are used in Chinese medicine. There is an illegal trade in pelts and body parts. Ever-decreasing habitats and the decline of large mammal prey also put pressure on existing leopards.
It is believed that there are only about 6,000 left in the wild, with another 600 to 700 in zoos. Perhaps the census will help in establishing data and information about the snow leopard and the best way to go about its continued survival in the wild.