WHAT IS A SNOW LEOPARD?
Snow leopards live in the high rhododendron forests of the Himalayas and have been relentlessly pursued by man because of their remarkable coat. While it is now protected by laws banning the sale of its fur, the high prices that such furs command means that illegal hunting still goes on.
It has had full protection in India since 1952 and also enjoys year round protection in the USSR. Despite this and the fact that, on the recommendation of the international furriers association, it has become illegal to possess the fur of the snow leopard, snow leopard coats still make their way on to the market.
The snow leopard breeds less prolifically in captivity than lions or tigers, and its life expectancy in a zoo is 20 years. With that in mind, emergency action must be taken to protect the snow leopard if it is to survive in the wild.
Snow leopard facts
The snow leopard is actually slightly smaller than the leopard, but its dense fur makes it look larger than it really is.
Compared with the other members of the big cat family, the snow leopard's tail is much longer in proportion to the rest of its body.
While being hunted for its fur is the main cause of the snow leopard's population decline, another significant reason is that man has over hunted its natural prey species.
Snow leopard cubs are dependent on their mother for at least a year after birth.
Snow leopard habitat
Snow leopards live in the high, rugged mountains of Central Asia, extending through twelve countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The snow leopards range is roughly indicated on the map below by the red shading.
Snow leopard range covers 2 million square kilometers, about the size of Greenland or Mexico. China contains as much as 60% of snow leopard habitat. Sadly, the snow leopard has already disappeared from some areas where they formerly lived, such as certain parts of Mongolia.
Much of the snow leopard's habitat is located along international borders, some of them disputed between two countries. To some degree, this situation protects the cats because sensitive border areas are often closed to all public access, making them almost 'accidental' protected areas. But this also adds to the difficulty of studying snow leopards and establishing their current status and distribution.
Snow leopards prefer steep, broken terrain of cliffs, rocky outcrops, and ravines. These specialist environments are usually found between 3,000 and 5,400 meters above sea level. While this can be harsh and forbidding, this type of habitat provides good cover and clear views to help them sneak up on their prey unseen.
Each individual snow leopard inhabits a defined home range. However, these home ranges overlap and snow leopards do not defend them the way more aggressively territorial species do. Home range sizes vary greatly. It is thought that in Nepal and other areas where prey is abundant, cats inhabit home ranges as small as 30-65 square kilometers. In areas where there is less prey, such as Mongolia, snow leopards need more land in order to survive and their home ranges may be over 1,000 square kilometers in area.
As they move about their home ranges, the cats often travel along ridgelines and cliff bases, and choose bedding sites near cliffs or ridges with good views over the surrounding terrain.
Radio collar studies of snow leopards in the wild have indicated that they usually stay in one area for several days before moving on to another part of their home range. This is usually to another valley, where the likelyhood of more prey is hopefilly increased.
Surprisingly, they are quite capable of covering long distances in a single night, and in Mongolia they have even been documented to cross over 25 miles of open desert between mountain slopes.
Hopefully, as awearness of the snow leopards plight increases, their stunning natural beauty will be appreciated by generations to come.
So what do snow leopards prey on?
Snow leopards are carnivores and actively hunt their prey. However like all cats, they are opportunistic feeders, eating whatever meat they can find, including carrion and domestic livestock.
Amazingly, snow leopards are so powerful that they can kill animals three to four times their size, such as the Bharal, Himalayan Tahr, Markhor and Argali but will readily take much smaller prey such as hares and birds.
Unusual among cats, snow leopards will also eat a significant amount of vegetation as part of their normal diet.
In the Himalayas, it preys mostly on bharals (Himalayan blue sheep) but in other mountain ranges such as the Karakoram, Tian Shan, and Altai, its main prey consists of the Siberian ibex and argali, a type of wild sheep, although this has become rarer in some parts of the snow leopard's range. Other large animals eaten include various types of wild goats and sheep (such as markhors and urials), other goat-like ruminants such as Himalayan tahr and gorals, plus deer, boars, and langur monkeys. Smaller prey consists of marmots, woolly hares, pikas, various rodents, and birds such as the snow cock and chukar.
Snow leopards have not been reported to attack humans, and appear to be among the least aggressive of all the 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.
Snow leopards prefer to ambush prey from above, using broken terrain to conceal their approach, and can leap as far as 14 meters (46 ft). They will actively pursue prey down steep mountainsides, using the momentum of their initial leap to chase animals for up to 300 metres (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 bharal for two weeks before hunting again.
The female snow leopard will make her nest among the rocks, using her own fur as bedding. About 14 weeks after mating, she will give birth to a litter containing anything between two to five cubs.
When born, the cubs are much darker than their mother. they are blind for their first week and can crawl after ten days. By the time they are two months old, and they have learned to run and are eating solid food as well as suckling milk. By mid-summer they follow their mother when she goes out to hunt, and they will stay with her until they are about a year old.
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Photo care of http://grosfelins.canalblog.com/ and http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/afghanistan-protects-rare-bird-snow-leopard-and-other-species.html