Diet and Hunting Edit
Snow leopards prey upon the blue sheep (bharal) of Tibet and the Himalaya, as well as the mountain ibex found over most of the rest of their range. Though these powerful predators can kill animals three times their weight, they also eat smaller fare, such as marmots, hares, and game birds. One Indian snow leopard, protected and observed in a national park, is reported to have consumed five blue sheep, nine Tibetan woolly hares, twenty-five marmots, five domestic goats, one domestic sheep, and fifteen birds in a single year.
Very rare in most of their range, an estimated 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards are left in the wild, with 600 - 700 in zoos around the world. Exact numbers in the wild have not been determined due to the snow leopard’s shy nature.
Snow leopards are found at altitudes between 9,800 and 17,000 feet in the high, rugged mountains of Central Asia. Their range spans from Afghanistan to Kazakstan and Russia in the north to India and China in the east. China contains about 60% of snow leopard habitat. They have already disappeared from certain parts of Mongolia, which is part of their historic range.
Snow leopards prefer to inhabit steep cliff areas, rocky outcrops and ravines. Such habitats provide them with the camouflage they need to ambush unsuspecting prey. They stalk their prey and usually spring from a distance of 20 - 50 feet. Their long and powerful hind limbs help snow leopards leap up to 30 feet, which is six times their body length. Mostly active at dawn and dusk, snow leopards are rarely seen in the wild. Unlike other big cats, snow leopards are unable to roar. Solitary in nature, they pair only during the breeding season.
Snow leopards mate between January and mid-March. Females give birth to 2-3 cubs in rocky dens lined with their fur. The young follow their mother on hunts at three months and remain with her through their first winter.
As these numbers indicate, snow leopards sometimes have a taste for domestic animals, which has led to killings of the big cats by herders. These endangered cats appear to be in dramatic decline because of such killings, and due to poaching driven by illegal trades in pelts and in body parts used for traditional Chinese medicine. Vanishing habitat and the decline of the cats' large mammal prey are also contributing factors.