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Species Spotlight: Snow Leopard

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.

More Articles from Winter 2011

Conservationists race to save Panamanian frogs from extinction.
Firm footing is hard to find for Mexican wolves in the American Southwest
Vaccinating prairie dogs may be the key to saving rare black-footed ferrets
There’s a saying in politics that dates at least to the French Revolution, to the effect that the public gets the government it deserves.
A preternatural quiet has fallen over the land. On this cold snap of a February day, even exhaled air is quickly stilled, flash-frozen into ice crystals. Wind-whipped snow rests in six-foot-high banks that stretch for miles along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.
Global climate change could spell disaster for some South American birds as more rain and warmer temperatures cause the populations of parasites that plague them to explode.
With all-too-frequent reports of rare panthers killed on roads as their habitat is lost to development, Florida’s big cats are in urgent need of help. Enter the idea to expand the boundaries of the 26,000-acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
Icons of the West, bison are as American as apple pie and the 4th of July. But with only one genetically pure wild bison herd left—the approximately 3,000-strong Yellowstone National Park herd—the future for these wild animals is in doubt.
The oil that bled into the Gulf of Mexico for months last year and caused the death of thousands of animals continues to impact coastal communities and natural habitats.
When wolves began returning to the Northern Rockies more than two decades ago, Defenders pioneered a program to compensate ranchers for livestock lost to the imperiled animals—a crucial foundation for building rancher tolerance for wolves.
Defenders has long worked to make residents in the West and Alaska more bear aware.