By Shradha Kapoor
How would you visualise a snow leopard?
Solitary, almost silent, and majestically beautiful. The snow leopard is all of that and so much more! Popularly known as one of the most enigmatic of the big cats, they are apex predators whose presence determines the health of the high-mountain ecosystem.
Globally, snow leopards are sparsely distributed across 12 countries in Central Asia. From southern Russia down to the Tibetan plateau, including Mongolia, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and India. Such is the large and significant snow leopard habitat.
They live in challenging and unforgiving terrains. Less than 4 per cent of the snow leopard global range has been surveyed using robust methods such as camera traps - so a lot is still left to learn about this elusive species.
Ahead of International Snow Leopard Day, let us explore five fascinating facts about the “Ghost of the Mountains.”
Yes! You read it right. Unlike other big cats, snow leopards can't roar. Snow leopards have a 'main' call described as a 'piercing yowl' – that is so loud, one can hear it over the roar of a river!
They can only hiss and growl. This majestic cat often makes a soft 'prusten' greeting call – which sounds like the snorting of a horse. Such greeting call is used as a friendly note or for reassurance.
Did you know? Over 330 million people live within 10 km of rivers originating in snow leopard habitat. People and snow leopards need to co-exist. Together, they thrive and help provide a balance in the Himalayan ecosystem.
"Snow leopards balances the Himalayan ecosystem, the source of our life-giving river systems- the Ganga, Yamuna and Brahmaputra".
For centuries, snow leopards and people have lived side by side as part of the mountain ecosystem. Religious and cultural beliefs and traditional knowledge ensured a harmonious coexistence between people and the big cat across its range. Without the snow leopard, the health of the biodiverse Himalayan ecosystem would be disrupted.
Have you ever wondered about the living conditions of those who reside in the icy Himalayas? It is an everyday battle.
The fur of this elusive species keeps them well insulated in cold weather - it usually is 5 cm long on their back and sides and almost 12cm long on their belly. Snow leopards' tails are 80-105 cm long.
They aid balance and wrap their long furry tail around themselves for added warmth during winters. Snow leopard’s wide, fur-covered feet act as natural snowshoes – helping distribute their weight over soft snow and protecting the soles from the cold.
Surprisingly, snow leopards can travel over 25 miles in a single night!
The snow leopard would do amazingly well in most athletic events, its best potentially being the long jump. Some snow leopards are well known to leap up to 9 metres - 6 times their body length!
Snow leopards are well camouflaged! Their thick grey fur speckled with dark rosettes and spots perfectly camouflage in the rocky terrain they call home.
As mysterious and elusive as they are, they are also crepuscular - indicating they are very active during the hours of dusk to dawn.
Human and leopard conflict has escalated in the last four decades. Livestock depredation by snow leopards often leads to communities killing them in retaliation. This has emerged as a leading threat to the remaining snow leopard population. The estimated number of snow leopards found in India stands between 470-516.
To help create a safe haven for the species, WWF India has developed and scaled-up initiatives. Some of our specific interventions are:
- Installation of predator-proof livestock pens to reduce livestock loss and retaliatory killing of snow leopards
- Keeping a pulse of the snow leopard population using robust monitoring tools
- Engaging local communities, tourists, and the Indian Army to protect the snow leopard
- Enhancing and diversifying livelihood opportunities for local communities, so that they benefit from sharing space with these furry big cats
When you help protect the snow leopard, you will also support the conservation of the Himalayan ecosystem. It is the source of three mighty rivers and most of our freshwater systems on which the lives of millions of Indians depend.
This International Snow Leopard day, let’s begin to understand this majestic species and how we can thrive with them together!