Swift and silent as the falling snow, these adeptly named big cats stalk wild sheep, goats and other mountain mammals across some of Central Asia’s rockiest terrain. Snow leopards—with wide, snowshoe-like paws and strong legs—are acrobats of the mountains, leaping as far as 50 feet and diving on prey from craggy perches.

© Steve Winter / National Geographic Stock

© Steve Winter / National Geographic Stock

 

The cats thrive in colder climes, where their gray and white dappled coats blend perfectly with the rocks and snow, and their long bushy tails make a good scarf in the bitter cold.

Scientists estimate that only 3,500 to 4,000 remain in the wild, as domestic sheep and goats overgraze habitat belonging to the leopard’s preferred prey. With fewer “organic” options on the menu, a corralled sheep herd can become fast food for a hungry leopard.

Conflicts with herders, along with the black market demand for snow leopard fur, bones and other body parts (key ingredients in Chinese traditional medicines), are taking a heavy toll on these endangered animals. Global warming is also impacting habitat and the availability of prey.

But with the help of local conservation efforts and trade protections under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, we may be able to stop these stealthy felines from slipping away.

Learn more about snow leopards.

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