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What Is a Snow Leopard?

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  • Written By: Angie Bates
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 04 December 2016
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A snow leopard is a type of wild cat that lacks the ability to roar. It has been endangered since 1972. A kind of leopard, the snow leopard lives at high altitudes in mountainous areas in Asia. The scientific name for this cat is Uncia uncia, but it also may be known as Panthera uncia.

Gray or white, with the distinctive leopard spots, the snow leopard is approximately 2 feet (0.6 m) tall at the shoulder and 4–5 feet (1.2–1.5 m) long, not counting its 3 foot (0.9 m) tail. Its tail is not only used as a counterbalance, but also to cover exposed body parts in the cold. Additionally, its wide, fur-covered feet serve as natural snowshoes. Unlike most large cats, which have golden eyes, snow leopards' eyes are light blue or green. In captivity, they may live up to 21 years.

Mountain cats, snow leopards do not normally venture below elevations of 9,800 feet (2,987 m) and can make their homes as high as 17,000 (5,181 m) feet above sea level. Most active at dawn and dusk, they live on cliffs or other rocky places in steep areas and make their dens in stone shelters. Able to cover distances up to 50 feet (15.24 m) in a single leap, these cats often pounce on their prey after stalking them.

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Often killing animals three times its weight, a snow leopard's prey consists of ibex and sheep, as well as small animals like hare and birds. In the Himalayan region, a type of blue sheep, called bhoral, is their favorite prey. Unfortunately, snow leopards also often kill livestock, particularly domesticated sheep and goats. The farmers respond by killing the leopards, which has contributed to their decline.

Although snow leopards are solitary animals, they do pair during breeding season in January through March. The male does not remain to take care of the resulting litter, however. After a three or three-and-a-half month pregnancy, the female gives birth to a litter of two or three cubs. At three months old, the cubs leave the den and follow their mother. Cubs remain in their mother's care through a single winter.

In addition to being killed for attacking livestock, snow leopards have been historically killed for their pelts, as well as certain body parts used in traditional Chinese medicines. The destruction of their habitats also contributes to their low population. Global warming can affect them as well, raising the temperature in their previous habitat and forcing them to retreat higher into the mountains.

Luckily, habitat conservation efforts are continuing. Additionally, farmers in areas inhabited by snow leopards are being taught to safeguard against attacks. The local governments have also instituted programs that compensate farmers for lost livestock if they do not kill the leopards responsible.

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