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In search of snow leopards: a shy, endangered cat eludes all but the cleverest of scientists.


We walked single file along the thin mountain trail. Twenty packhorses carried our gear. In a valley far below, plants and trees thrived beside a roaring river. But along our dusty trail, 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above sea level, little grew. We glimpsed a herd of wild sheep on a faraway cliff and birds circling overhead, but saw nothing else alive. The thin air made it hard to breathe.


This was snow leopard country. Our 10-person team, which included snow leopard researcher Tashi Tundup and award-winning wildlife photographer Steve Winter, had come to the Indian Himalayas looking for the shy, elusive cat.


It took us five days to reach the first mountain village. Inside a mud-brick house, we talked to locals over yak-milk tea. Tundup translated. They told us that a snow leopard had just killed three of their goats. The cat's kills were devastating to the families because they relied on the goats' meat, milk, and wool for their livelihood.

Snow leopards are the top predator in the ecosystem (community of plants and animals) in which it lives. Even so, scientists have determined that the big cat is an endangered species (see Nuts & Bolts, p. 14). The biggest reason snow leopards are being killed is that they eat people's livestock, says Tom McCarthy, science and conservation director of the Seattle-based organization Snow Leopard Trust. The cats would prefer to hunt wild sheep and goats, but sometimes there are too few prey around. That's because wild sheep and goats, which compete with domesticated herds for sparse grasses on which to graze, often die of starvation or are forced to move away to find food. Additionally, local people sometimes hunt wild sheep and goats, leaving hungry snow leopards with little choice but to kill livestock. When that happens, herders poison or shoot the cats. It's a problem across all 12 Central Asian countries in which snow leopards live (see map, left).

Illegal poaching poses another threat to snow leopards. The cats' luxurious fur commands $600 or more on the black market. That's three years' salary for many people living in the area.

Snow leopards are also poached for their bones, which are smuggled illegally to China for use in traditional medicines. They are ground into powder to treat swelling and pain--and are believed to give people the animal's strength. One cat's bones can fetch $5,000 or more.


Most of the villagers we encountered on our 17-day trek had never set eyes on the secretive snow leopard. The cat's elusive nature makes it difficult to study, says Joe Fox, a biology professor at the University of Tromso in Norway. "Although we've been studying them for 50 years, we know little about them," he says.

Some of what scientists know comes from studying snow leopards in zoos. For example, they know that the cat's large paws act like snowshoes, helping it to walk through snow. Long, powerful hind legs allow them to leap up to 9 m (30 ft)--five times their body length. And because they live at high altitudes, snow leopards have powerful lungs and large chests to pull oxygen from the thin air.

To study the cats in their vast, rugged mountain home, scientists have to be clever. They look for the scrapes or sprays snow leopards use to mark their territory, and then they set up trap cameras in those places. When the animals pass by, these cameras automatically photograph them. By studying the pictures, researchers can identify individual snow leopards because each cat's spot pattern is like a fingerprint--no two are alike.

Additionally, researchers outfit the animals with radio collars. These devices beam a signal to a satellite--which then transmits the cat's location to a computer. One cat in Pakistan traveled 1,296 square kilometers (500 square miles) in a single year!


Although scientists are slowly gathering information about snow leopards, questions abound. Scientists think the cats populate an area roughly the size of Mexico, but they're not sure. Researchers also don't know how many kittens are born in the wild. If they have few young, that would mean dwindling populations that don't rebound quickly. And while scientists know that snow leopards are mostly solitary, they don't know where they go or what they do when they meet up with one another.

A more pressing question is how many snow leopards are left, says George Schaller, vice president of Panthera, a New York-based cat conservation organization. Estimates range from 3,500 to 7,000, but thousands of kilometers of snow leopard habitat have never been studied. Plus, scientists suspect that poachers and herders may have killed as many as 40 percent of wild snow leopards in the past 10 years, meaning that current estimates may be too high.


Scientists are trying hard to protect the endangered cats. "We are working with local communities, because they will decide the fate of these animals," says Schaller. Snow Leopard Trust has vaccinated livestock in Pakistan so fewer animals in a family's herd die of disease. That way, if a snow leopard happens to kill an animal from their herd, it is not as devastating to that family's livelihood. Snow Leopard Trust also sells Mongolian herders' handicrafts on its Web site and in zoos in the U.S. This gives the people income so they are not as dependent on their herds in the event of a snow leopard attack. The organization has even established livestock insurance policies to pay for snow leopard kills. In return, villagers sign a contract promising that they won't kill the cats or their prey.

These efforts are helping, but in order to do effective conservation, we need more knowledge. "We need young people to get out there and study these animals," says Schaller. "[Snow leopards] are the top predator in those mountains. If you protect them, you protect all the plants and animals that live there."


nuts & bolts

What does it mean for a species to be endangered? An endangered species is one that is in danger of becoming extinct in the near future. When a species becomes extinct, it has no more living members.

web extra

For a link to more facts about snow leopards, visit: /scienceworld

The pie chart below shows the percent of snow leopards
in zoos and in each country within the cat's range. How many
countries contain a smaller percent of snow leopards than are
housed in zoos? A bigger percent?

CHINA         38%
MONGOLIA      13%
ZOOS          11%
NEPAL          7%
INDIA          7%
PAKISTAN       5%
RUSSIA         3%
BHUTAN         2%

Note: Table made from pie chart.

it's your choice

1. Which of the following threatens snow leopards?

(A) poaching

(B) extreme weather conditions

(C) poisoning by herders

(D) both a and b

(E) both a and c

2. How have scientists learned about snow leopards?

(A) by watching them in zoos

(B) by studying photos from trap cameras

(C) by radio collaring them

(D) all of the above

3. An endangered species is one that is in danger of--in the near future.

(A) starving

(B) becoming extinct

(C) reproducing

(D) being poached

Answer key

1. e 2. d 3. b


* Snow leopards are big cats that live in the Himalayas. What sorts of challenges would these animals encounter in such a high, rugged terrain?

* The snow leopard is an endangered species. What threats might snow leopards face?

* There is great tension between snow leopards and some local farmers and herders. What might be the source of this tension?


* A snow leopard is able to kill prey up to three times its weight.

Usually, it hunts wild sheep and goats. Once they successfully catch their prey, snow leopards will eat slowly, taking three or four days to consume the entire animal.

* The snow leopard was declared "endangered" and added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources' Red List of Threatened Species in 1972.

* While they are members of the cat family, snow leopards can neither purr continually like small cats can, nor can they roar like most big cats do.


* Snow leopards are rarely seen in the wild, even by people who live in the same remote mountain habitat. Yet, humans are the main threat to their existence. What do you think is the most important strategy for preserving snow leopards? What would you do to help keep the farmers and herders from killing these cats?


ART: Snow leopards are perfectly adapted to their harsh environment. They have white, yellowish, or smoky-gray fur patterned with dark-gray-to-black spots and rosettes. These markings camouflage them against the rocky slopes, helping them sneak up on their prey. Each cat's spot pattern is unique and can be used to identify it. Check out the pictures of snow leopards at this Web site: /photogallery, and draw a habitat that you believe reflects this unique patterning.


You can access these Web links at

* Check out some classroom activities provided by the Snow Leopard Conservancy at this Web site: /kids/text/activities.htm.

* The Planet Earth "Mountains" segment shows rare footage of a snow leopard hunting prey: /videos/planet-earth-mountains-snow-leopard-hunt.html*

* Learn more about threatened species at the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources' Web site:


DIRECTIONS: Answer the following questions in complete sentences.

1. Which one of the snow leopard's body parts make the cat so well adapted to walking through snow? Explain.

2. What characteristic of snow leopards makes them so hard to study in the wild?

3. What are three reasons that people might kill snow leopards?

4. Choose one strategy that Snow Leopard Trust is using to help protect the big cats, and explain how it aims to help prevent their extinction.


1. A snow leopard's large paws act like snowshoes, helping it walk through snow.

2. Snow leopards are hard to study in the wild because they are very shy, elusive creatures.

3. People might kill snow leopards because the cats eat their livestock, to sell their fur on the black market, or to smuggle their bones to China for use in traditional medicines.

4. Answers will vary but may include: Snow Leopard Trust is vaccinating livestock in Pakistan so that if a snow leopard happens to kill an animal, it won't be as devastating for the farmer; it sells Mongolian herders' handicrafts online and at zoos to give the herders additional income; and it has established livestock insurance policies to pay for snow leopard kills.
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Article Details
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Author:Guynup, Sharon
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 7, 2009
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