The snow leopard is arguably one of the world's most beautiful and exotic big cats, and yet we know so little about them. Worse still, their exquisite beauty has also put them at risk from extinction due to loss of habitat and being hunted for their highly prized, long, thick fur.

However, conservation projects are working hard and the more we learn about these secretive beasts the more likely we will be able to save snow leopards for future generations.

So what do snow leopards prey on?

Snow leopard hunting

Like all big cats Snow leopards are carnivorous and and while they will go out and actively hunt their prey, they are also opportunistic feeders, eating whatever meat they can find, including carrion and unfortunately domestic livestock. Sadly this brings it into direct conflict with humans and herders will go out of their way to kill snow leopards to prevent them from taking their animals.

Amazingly, snow leopards are so strong that they can kill prey three to four times their size, such as the Bharal, Himalayan Tahr, Markhor and Argali. However, because of the extreme climates in which they live they 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.

Himalayan blue sheep
The diet of the snow leopard will vary across its range and will be also be dependent on the time of year, and prey availability.

In the Himalayas, it will prey mostly on bharals (Himalayan blue sheep) but in other mountain ranges such as the Karakoram, Tian Shan, and Altai, its will mainly feed on the Siberian ibex and argali, a type of wild sheep.

 Other large animals that will be considered suitable prey by the Snow leopard will 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 leopard eating
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 (46ft). 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.

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