Snow leopards inhabit the mountains, semi-arid scrublands, grasslands and steppe habitats throughout central and southern Asia. Despite their vast range—which includes countries such as China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russian Federation to name a few—these cats live in narrow corridors of habitat and isolated patches. Scientists estimate that there are fewer than 2,500 mature breeding individuals and the species is on the decline.
Several forces are responsible for the low numbers of snow leopards left in the wild. The cats have thick, rosette-speckled fur that makes them the unfortunate target of poachers who sell their pelts in illegal markets in China, Taiwan, and Mongolia. The furs of the endangered cat command high prices on black markets. During the 1960s, poaching drove populations as low as 1000 individuals. Although numbers of snow leopards have recovered somewhat in recent decades, there remains concern about illegal poaching as numbers of the cat in the wild are believed to be again falling. There is also demand in China for snow leopard bones for use in traditional medicines (Cat Specialist Group, 2002).
Snow leopards also face the grim threat of a declining prey supply. Widespread poisoning of marmots and pikas across the Tibetan Plateau coupled with extensive hunting of large ungulates have left the leopard population without the food supply it needs. Some leopards turn to the taking of livestock animals when faced with dwindling wild food sources.
Photo © Dennis Conner / Snow Leopard Trust.
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