THE SNOW LEOPARD

Panthera uncia
 

Description : The Snow Leopard is a phantom cat. No one has been able to make more than a fleeting observation of it in the wild, and yet it has captured the imagination of millions. This is a beautiful animal with thick long hair and dense, woolly under fur. In common with other creatures with nature's special endowment of beauty, Snow Leopards are persistently sought after and hunted for their valuable fur. Its soft coloring and luxuriant coat is scarcely rivaled.

SIZE : Somewhat smaller than a panther with a longer tail. Head and body, 3ft.3 in. - 3ft. 8 in. (100-110cm); tail, 3ft. (90cm). The Snow Leopard is about the same size as a leopard.  
 
DISTINCTIVE FEATURES : The Snow Leopard is distinctive in the shortness of its muzzle, its high forehead, and vertical chin. The ground colour of its coat is soft grey, paling to pure white on the underside. The grey is sometimes tinged with buff. The spots are unbroken and distinct on the head, nape, and lower parts of the limbs. On the body  they break up into larger, paler rosettes, The rosettes are less pronounced in the luxuriant winter coat. Its body markings are more like those typically found in small cats rather than in big cats. The head does not have as many spots as the leopard's, and spots are arranged in distinct rows. The large rump spots look like those found in young pumas, but on the flanks the spots always have a light central area. It has a round head, broad paws, and a long, round tail with hair that is equally long all around the tail. In winter the otherwise light, yellow-grey to cream coloured hair become whiter, while it has additional grey hues in summer. The black-grey circular spots are larger than those of the leopards.  

DISTRIBUTION : Himalayan chain from Kashmir to Sikkim, northwards their territory extends into Tibet, Central Asia, and the Altais. Its home is the higher altitudes of the Himalayas, in that region of stupendous rock and cliff above the tree line some12,000 - 13,000 ft (3660 - 3965 m.) above sea level.

HABITAT : Snow Leopard inhabit rhododendron forests and the almost plant less high mountain fields. The den is built beneath rocks and in rock crevices. Most Zoo kept Snow Leopards are active at night, but this may be because the coolness of night is more like the conditions to which they are accustomed. In the wild, Snow Leopards are also seen during the day. The Snow Leopards, with its light, thick coat, is beautifully adapted to its habitat, the coat protecting it from both the cold and the extreme summer heat. The paws have hair cushions, preventing the animal from sinking into the snow since their hair increases the surface area of the paws and distributes the animal's weight over a larger area. The hair cushions also protect the soles from the snow, rough ground, cold and rocks heated by the sun in mid - summer.

HABITS :  The Snow Leopard's diet includes ibex, wild sheep, tahr, piping hare, mice and birds. In winter, when the Snow Leopard moves into lower altitudes, it preys on deer, wild boar, gazelle, and hare. It stalks its prey, creeping up and then grabbing it in a sudden spring. The Snow Leopard is a superb long jumper, executing jumps from 6 to 15 m through air. They often rest on cliffs, in trees, or on other elevated spots, which are not ascended but simply reached by jumping up. Unlike the Leopard, Snow Leopards begin eating their prey from the posterior portion of the body. First the belly is opened and the viscera are eaten; then the Snow Leopard begins on the muscles from the rump area, moving toward the front of the prey. Since the Central Asian highlands are not densely populated by larger animals, Snow Leopards in that region require fairly large territories in order to procure enough food. The relatively low food supply does not permit Snow Leopards to form social hunting groups; there would not be enough food around to feed a Snow Leopard pack. The only time that hunting is not solitary is usually when a male and female hunt together during the mating season, or when a female hunts with her young. Snow Leopards stay within their territories and do not migrate extensively.  

 
REPRODUCTIVE BEHAVIOUR : The breeding season occurs towards the end of winter Females are in heat for five to seven to days, and if a female does not mate in that time she will again be in heat after fifty four to seventy days. The gestation period is 98 - 103 days, and two to five young (weighing 300 - 700 g.) are born in a well concealed den sometime between April and June. The mother lines the den with her own fur. Initially the spots on the newborn young are completely black, lacking the lighter central area. The young open their eyes after seven to nine days. They begin crawling after ten days and can run well when they are two months old. At that age they can lick up liquids and feed on solids. The young begin following their mother on hunting forays in July or August, and they remain with her through winter. So far it is not known whether females typically bear young every year or every other year.

PRESENT STATUS : Snow Leopards have suffered tremendously at the hand of man, because the species has been "blessed" with the strikingly beautiful fur, which is soft and thick. The species has become extremely rare in many parts of its native habitat. In India, where Snow Leopards occur on the southern slopes of the Himalayas, the species has been under full protection since 1952. International protective measures will have to be stiffened if the species is to be preserved as part of the World's fauna. Zoo breeding alone cannot provide the solution, since until recently Snow Leopards bred poorly in zoos. Some zoos, particularly Kauna's Helsiki's, Darjeeling's and Chicogo's Lincoln Park, now have good success at Snow Leopard reproduction, but conservation in the wild must be improved.

LONGEVITY : The longevity record for a Snow Leopard in captivity is over fifteen years. Actually only 200 ounces live in Zoological gardens all over the World.