Mongolia is currently home to the second largest population of Snow Leopards in the world. Living at extreme altitudes, this majestic feline can survive glacial blasts that would freeze a human’s blood in minutes. The fact that they’ve a preference for prowling the lithic pitiless terrain of the Altai, Khangai, and Khorkh mountain ranges in Mongolia, means eyeballing this top predator in its natural habitat is more than a little difficult.
Found at elevations of 3,000 to 6,000 meters above sea level, these powerful predators are able to kill animals triple their weight with ease. Blue sheep and Ibex are the order of the day, as are hares, marmots and birds. The rocky outcrops and rugged ravines of Mongolia’s mountains make great cover for a snow leopard on the hunt. With a top speed of 55 miles per hour once prey has been caught in a snow leopard’s cross hairs it doesn’t stand much of a chance.
The snow leopard’s inclination for chilly climes has led to some interesting adaptations. Short but enlarged nasal cavities warm the polar air before it reaches a snow leopards lungs. Their broad muscular chests enable them to filter the maximum amount of oxygen from thin, high altitude air. The snow leopard’s pale amber or blue grey fur is exceptionally dense. Insulating hairs on their undercoats are tightly packed and about 3 inches long, their outer coats are just as thick and reach about 5 inches in length. A snow leopards’ thickset tail is a multipurpose tool, at a metre long maintaining balance while navigating treacherous outcrops is not the only thing they’re used for. They are often used to keep the elements at bay, the snow leopard wrapping it around itself in a bid to keep toasty. Remarkably the snow leopards’ tail is also used for fat storage, another much-needed heat source when living at -40 °C. This big cats’ paws are huge, at 3 times the size of the average human hand they serve to spread the animals’ weight evenly, so it doesn’t sink into the snow. The snow leopards most notable adaptation is its wizard-like ability to leap. Its powerful hind legs mean this kitty is able to jump an impressive 6 metres high and 50 ft far!
Still Under Threat?
The IUCN has recently reclassified the snow leopard from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’, which is cause for celebration. However, the decision to change the snow leopard’s status classification has been a controversial one. New estimations of 8000 snow leopards being left in the wild are thought to have been drastically overstated, and the snow leopards’ rate of decline somewhat understated. Many scientists and conservationists say the more accurate number is between 3000-5550, and that while conservation efforts are bringing about change much more needs to be done.
Human encroachment on the snow leopards’ range and poaching mainly for use in traditional Chinese medicines saw 460 of these stunning animals killed last year alone. Then there are those that think it sport to kill snow leopards and display their hides as trophies. Habitat loss has meant the snow leopard increasingly finds itself in conflict with local herders, who simply shoot them on sight to protect their livestock.
The Mongolian government has invested time and money to counteract such threats. Educational programmes, livestock insurance schemes, and campaigns across Mongolia seem to be working, as there has been a small increase in snow leopard numbers. Another boost to conservation efforts is the 730.000-hectare zone Mongolian authorities have designated as a federally protected area dedicated to the care and defence of the snow leopard.
From Mongolia to Bhutan and China, the snow leopard plays an important role as both an apex predator and indicator of the health of our high-altitude ecosystems. It’s worth remembering that when protecting keystone species such as the snow leopard we are in fact protecting the whole environment.
For more information on conservation projects in Mongolia and Bhutan or to book one of our Birding, Trekking, Botany or Wildlife Tours, please contact 020 3877 0670
Did You Know ?
Snow leopards can’t roar! They mew, growl, and chuff, but never roar.
Lions are the only big cat to live in groups, the snow leopard like most felines prefers its own company, only interacting with other leopards during breeding season.
Mating season for snow leopards fall between January and March, females gestate for about 3 months and usually have a litter of 2-3 cubs.
Although they share a similar name and appearance with the common leopard (Panthera pardus), genetic studies have suggested that snow leopards (Panthera uncia), are more closely related to the tiger (Panthera tigris).
Compared to other predatory cats, the snow leopard can be considered non-aggressive. When threatened by another predator they often choose to back away. Rather than fight, the shy snow leopard will leave a well-earned kill to be finished off by an invader.
Snow leopards have steel grey or light green eyes, unusual for big cats who normally have gold or yellow coloured eyes.