Where do snow leopards live?
The species lives in 12 countries in and around Central Asia. Estimates of the total population vary: the IUCN says 4,080–6,590; Panthera, 4,500–10,000.
China is home to perhaps 60 per cent of the world’s population of snow leopards, with over 1 million km2 of the species’ habitat spread across the far west and around the Tibetan Plateau. Since 2009 the charity Panthera has worked with partners including Chinese NGO Shan Shui and the Snow Leopard Trust on research and community-based conservation activities in Qinghai, Sichuan and Xinjiang.
Hemis National Park and Ulley Valley, Indian Himalaya
A number of commercial companies run tours to Ladakh with expert guides and trackers, claiming sighting success rates of up to 50 per cent. UK operators offering dedicated snow leopard trips include Naturetrek (01962 733051); Steppes Travel (01285 787419); and Wildlife Worldwide (01962 302086).
An estimated 350–590 snow leopards survive in Nepal – one of the larger populations within the species’ range. A network of Snow Leopard Conservation Committees, established in conjunction with WWF, set camera-traps in remote locations, work to reduce human–animal conflict through livestock-insurance schemes and protective corrals, and act as citizen scientists assessing populations.
South Gobi, Mongolia
The second-largest population of snow leopards – estimated at 500–1,000 individuals – survives mostly in the west of Mongolia. The Snow Leopard Trust co-ordinates conservation and research programmes, including livestock-insurance schemes run by the community. A long-term study in the South Gobi region has collared 21 cats to date, revealing valuable insights into behaviour as well as the size of their range.
Wangchuk Centennial National Park, Bhutan
More than half of the land area of this small Himalayan kingdom is protected. It hosts probably fewer than 200 snow leopards, but they are occasionally sighted during high-altitude treks. WWF camera-trap surveys of Wangchuk Centennial National Park revealed a population of snow leopards as well as Tibetan wolves, Himalayan serow and healthy numbers of blue sheep.
How snow leopards are superbly adapted to their habitat
1 Enlarged nasal cavities warm chilly mountain air before it reaches the lungs.
2 The pelage (fur) is smoky grey with dark rosettes and spots – ideal camouflage among rocks and scree slopes. Woolly, whitish fur comprising 12cm-long outer hairs keeps the belly warm.
3 The thick, metre-long tail assists with balance – important when cresting narrow ridges and negotiating treacherous crevasses. A resting cat can wrap its tail around its body like a scarf.
4 A large, muscular chest allows the leopeard to take deep breaths that help it to absorb oxygen from the thin, high-altitude air.
5 Short forelimbs and long hind legs enable the cat to spring up to 9m – handy when targeting nimble blue sheep and ibex.
6 Broad, furry paws act as snowshoes, enabling the leopard to traverse soft snow. They’re also thickly padded, providing maximum insulation and traction.
View amazing WWF footage of snow leopards:
[video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=795hiEggTQY width:623 height:360]
You can find out about the clever plan to protect these big cats in the February 2016 issue of BBC Wildlife.