Elusive, solitary and majectic, the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is rarely ever seen by the human eye. Living in remote, mountainous parts of central Asia, you must travel far and be very lucky to witness this animal in the wild. It has a round head, broad paws and a long, round tail. The paws have cushions of hair which prevent the snow leopard from sinking down into the deep snow, and protect the soles of its feet from the cold winter condtions or rugged summer terrain. Like its paws, the snow leopard's beautiful coat is adapted for all seasons. Its thick, white winter fur becomes a fine yellow-gray during the summer. Marked by solid black or dark brown spots arranged in rows over its head and lower limbs, this cat is difficult to distinguish from the landscape in winter months. Their spotted white coats serve as a wonderful camouflage against the snow and helps to keep the cat warm despite the bitter cold conditions.
Essentially adapted to mountain life, the snow leopard lives in remote areas of Asia's Himalayan Mountains. Depending upon the season, it occupies mountain steppes and coniferous forests at altitudes ranging from 5,900 to 18,000 feet. Its great leaping ability; they can jump 20 to 50 feet through the air -- lets the snow leopard bound into a tree or onto a cliff, often simply to perch and rest. The long, thick tail helps the snow leopard to keep its balance. Hence, there are completely suited for their terrain, in both agility and appearance.
Because of a low prey density, the snow leopard migrates to different altitudes along with its prey and usually hunts alone. During the summer, the snow leopard hunts at high altitudes for wild sheep, hare, mice and birds. In winter, they hunt at the lower elevations for deer, wild boar, gazelles and hare.
Cubs are born in well-hidden and fur-lined dens which the mother builds beneath rocks or in rocky crevices. One to four young are born in late spring or early summer. Like newborn kittens, they open their eyes only after a week or more, but by the time they are two months old, they are very active. They remain with their mother only through the first winter of their lives. Then, they must forage for themselves.
To some scientists, the snow leopard is known as an indicator species, one that indicates the general health of a particular environment. Since the snow leopard lives at the top of the food chain, if there are abundant and healthy snow leopards in an area, there is probably also a healthy local ecosystem. Therefore, conservation of the snow leopard encourages maintaining the chain of life that must survive to support the snow leopard. Currently, there are perhaps 6,000 snow leopards left in the wild. The number is difficult to estimate, however, since snow leopard terrain is rugged and researchers must rely on indications of the animal rather than direct sightings.
Note: Some information has been excerpted from World Wildlife Fund and the Avery Press.