Snow leopard | WWF
 
	© National Geographic Stock /Steve Winter / WWF

Snow leopard

An expert at navigating Central Asia's high mountains, the iconic snow leopard is recognizable by its long tail and almost-white coat, spotted with large black rosettes.

There are as few as 4000 snow leopards in the wild, and their numbers are declining due to habitat loss, poaching and the impact of climate change.
 
	© Klein & Hubert / WWF
Snow leopard (Uncia uncia)
© Klein & Hubert / WWF

Physical description

Snow leopards are highly adapted to their home in the cold high mountains. Their thick fur patterned with dark rosettes and spots (a pattern that is unique to each individual snow leopard) is the perfect camouflage for their rocky habitat, allowing them to stalk their prey.

Their beautiful coats are also made up of long hairs with a dense, woolly underfur to protect them against the cold.

Snow leopards have longer tails than other big cats. They can be up to 1 m in length and help the leopards to balance on steep, rocky slopes. They also provide additional protection against the cold since the leopards can be wrap them around themsleves while they are resting.
 

Why they matter?

From Bhutan to China, this remarkable species plays a key role as both top predator and an indicator of the health of its high-altitude habitat. If snow leopards thrive so will countless other species, as well as the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on the rivers flowing down from Central Asia's mountains.

Snow leopards are solitary and elusive creatures that usually hunt at dawn and dusk. They’re stealthy predators, able to kill prey up to three times their own weight.

Snow leopards’ favoured prey are herbivores, such as blue sheep, Argali sheep and ibex. But in many areas, snow leopards also prey on livestock, bringing them into conflict with herders.

Indeed, snow leopard habitat provides important resources for local communities – from food and medicine to grazing for livestock, and wood for shelter, heat and fuel. As well as water sources for millions of people downstream.

 
	© Fragile Connections: Snow leopards, people, water and the global climate
WWF report on importance of snow leopard habitat and impact of climate change
© Fragile Connections: Snow leopards, people, water and the global climate

Key Facts

  • common name

    Snow Leopard, Panthère Des Neiges (Fr), Pantera De La Nieves (Sp)

  • scientific name

    Panthera uncia, Uncia uncia

  • habitat

    Cold high mountains

  • status

    IUCN: Vulnerable C1 CITES: Appendix I

  • population

    Estimated 3,920 - 6,390 individuals

  • weight

    Adult male: 45-55 kg

  • height & length

    Adult length 90-130 cm; Shoulder height 60 cm; Tail length 80-100 cm

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The snow leopard ranges across 12 countries, from Afghanistan to Southern Siberia, this remarkable species plays a key role as both top predator and an indicator of the health of its high-altitude habitat. If snow leopards thrive so will countless other species, as well as the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on the rivers flowing down from the mountains. Yet how little we know about this iconic species is highlighted by the fact that less than 2 percent of their range has been surveyed using robust methods and analytical techniques and tools such as camera traps. We need to invest more in coordinated research and community-based conservation in order to protect the snow leopard and its vast mountain landscape.

Margaret Kinnaird, WWF Wildlife Practice Leader

Main threats

Snow leopards continue to face a number of threats including habitat loss, poaching and increasing conflict with communities. And climate change is now putting the future of their mountain home at even greater risk.

Poaching: Snow leopards have long been killed for their beautiful fur, but their bones and other body parts are also used in Traditional Asian Medicine. And the illegal trade in snow leopard parts appears to be increasing.

Conflict with communities: Herders sometimes kill snow leopards in retaliation for attacking their livestock. And the decline in the leopard’s natural prey - due to hunting, competition from increasing livestock herds, and habitat loss - is forcing them to rely more on livestock for food and increasing the risk of retaliatory killings.

Shrinking home: Snow leopards need vast areas to thrive, but expanding human and livestock populations are rapidly encroaching on their habitat. New roads and mines are also fragmenting their remaining range.

Changing climate: All these threats will be exacerbated by the impact of climate change on the fragile mountain environment - putting the future of snow leopards at even greater risk. It will also endanger the livelihoods of local communities and the tens of millions of people living downstream of these major watersheds.
 
	© © Klein & Hubert / WWF
Research by WWF scientists shows that 30 percent of the endangered snow leopard's habitat in the Himalayas may be lost if greenhouse gas emissions continue their steady increase.
© © Klein & Hubert / WWF
 
	© I.A. Ivanitsky
Snow leopard pelt seized from smugglers
© I.A. Ivanitsky
 
	© Alexander Kreik / WWF-Russia
Argali, or the mountain sheep (species Ovis ammon)
© Alexander Kreik / WWF-Russia

What WWF is doing

WWF has been working for many years to conserve the snow leopard by supporting a range of projects across Central Asia to reduce conflict between leopards and people, boost rural development, and control the illegal wildlife trade.

For example, we’ve helped build leopard-proof livestock pens, and we’ve set up compensation schemes for farmers who lose livestock to snow leopards. And supported camera traps and collaring to learn more about this elusive species.

In 2015, WWF launched its first ever network-wide Species Action Plan for snow leopards.

This comprehenseive strategy builds upon the organization’s long history in snow leopard conservation as well as the projects that WWF offices are currently undertaking in snow leopard range states.

The new strategy defines WWF’s contribution to the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Plan, which was adopted by all 12 range states, and will ensure that WWF's efforts will complement the activities of governments and other organizations.

Under this strategy, WWF will work in 14 priority snow leopard landscapes.

The organization will focus on reducing poaching and stopping the trafficking of snow leopards and reducing demand for their parts through TRAFFIC.

It will also work to scale up successful community-based approaches to reduce human-leopard conflict, while helping to mitigate the threats of climate change.
WWF research team monitoring snow leopard presence in the Altan Khokki range, Khar Us Nuur National ... 
	© Hartmut Jungius / WWF
WWF research team monitoring snow leopard presence in the Altan Khokki range, Khar Us Nuur National Park, Mongolian Altai, Mongolia.
© Hartmut Jungius / WWF
 
	© © Kamal Thapa/WWF Nepal
The snow leopard was captured using a modified Aldrich foot snare equipped with satellite/VHF trap transmitters, which is a tried and tested means. The snow leopard came to no harm during the capture.
© © Kamal Thapa/WWF Nepal
 
	© © Kamal Thapa/WWF Nepal
Dr. Rinjan Shrestha, Conservation Scientist-Eastern Himalayas Program, WWF US, fixing the final screws of the collar; the snow leopard’s mouth is kept open to avoid possible suffocation from its tongue rolling back in. The snow leopard was collared with a GPS Plus Globalstar collar (Vectronics Aerospace Inc., Germany). The collar is programmed to take GPS locations or ‘fixes’ at four-hour intervals and is also fitted with mortality, temperature and activity sensors.
© © Kamal Thapa/WWF Nepal

How you can help

 
	© Muhammad Osama/WWF Pakistan
© Muhammad Osama/WWF Pakistan

The snow leopard is a symbol of Central Asia’s high mountains. This spectacular region shelters a vast array of unique wildlife and provides precious water to tens of millions of people. So by working to save the ‘Ghost of the Mountains’, we will also be helping to ensure a future for all the species and communities that depend on its extraordinary home.
 

Did you know?

    • Snow leopards are solitary animals, it is rare to see two snow leopards together. Therefore, there is no term for a group of snow leopards.
    • Unlike other large cats, snow leopards cannot roar. They can mew, growl, yowl and prusten. 
    • They can jump as much as 50 feet (15 meters).
    • Snow leopards mate in late winter, between January and mid-March. Males and females stay together for a short period and males do not participate in rearing the cubs.
    • The gestation period is 98 - 104 days and the litter size can be between 1 - 5 cubs, though 2 - 3 is more usual.
    And there are more fascinating snow leopard facts in this top ten list on WWF-UK's website.
  • Population status

    Estimated population of the snow leopard is bewteen 3,920-6,390. Populations by country are roughly* as follows:

    Afghanistan: 100-200
    Bhutan: 100-200
    China: 2,000-2,500
    India: 200-600
    Kazakhstan: 100-110
    Kyrgyz Republic: 150-500
    Mongolia: 500-1,000
    Nepal: 300-500
    Pakistan: 200-420
    Russia: 70-90
    Tajikistan: 180-220
    Uzbekistan: 20-50

    * Due to the elusive nature of the species, it is difficult to obtain accurate population figures.

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