" Trees are Earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven." ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Saving the Snow Leopard

Sanctuary Asia Magazine invites you to participate in saving the snow leopard.

Wars fill us all with horror. What we don't often think about is how wars not only destroy human lives, but also our wildlife and their homes. The snow leopard's home is trashed simply by the presence of so many humans. Geese, cranes, seagulls and snipes, which undertake long migratory journeys lose their way in the noise and haze of war. Many perish in aircraft 'accidents'. Those that make it land on oil spills and forever lose their ability to fly because their wings get oil-coated. Bombs and landmines not only destroy forests but constantly release toxins that pollute soil and water and destroy ecosystems. Post-war, refugees encroaching on forestland often take to poaching or enter into conflict with wildlife. By going to war, by engaging in combat in lands that were never ours, where humans were never meant to intrude, we commit war crimes on snow leopards and cranes and flamingoes and hordes of other species that live on human warfronts.

The Adventurers
Wild Magic
Last of Asiatic Lions
Batty About Bhimgad


Book Reviews
Tiger in India
The Tiger is a Gent

If you want to save cranes, snow leopards and countless other species that inhabit or cross our borders, join us in asking the governments of India and Pakistan to set up a transboundary peace park to restore ecological harmony in the region. Read more about the IUCN-WCPA initiative and Support The Siachen Peace Park Initiative by sending an email to info@sanctuaryasia.com with your name, city, country and the organisation you belong to or represent (if any).

Picture Credit: ILTS

In Conversation with a Snow Leopard

In Latin, Uncia is my first name and uncia is my last name too; though you may sometimes hear of me referred to as Panthera uncia. I知 the world痴 most elusive cat. I知 the snow leopard. Locally, some people call me safed cheetah, probably because of my white spotted fur, though I知 definitely not a cheetah.

I live in the mountains, in steep, dry, rocky outcrops, in semi-arid shrub land and in the grasslands of central Asia. In India, I am only found in the snowy higher Himalayas of Jammu and Kashmir and eastward in Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. I知 found at an elevation of about 3,000 to 4,500 m. above sea level, though in the summer I知 sometimes as high up as 5,500 m. At the northernmost limits of my range, I live at 600-1,500 m. I descend to lower altitudes in winter to oak, fir or rhododendron forests. Most often, I remain confined to the north of the Himalaya along the Tibet border.

I am about 60 cm. tall at the shoulder and 195 cm. long, of which my tail accounts for nearly one half. Females usually weigh about 35 - 40 kg. and males typically weigh 45 - 55 kg., though plumper snow leopards can weigh as much as 75 kg. I have a soft, thick smoky grey coat with a yellowish tinge covered with brown blotches. The under wool is dark grey or brownish and the underparts do not have too many spots. The spots on my back form open rosettes. My fore paws are spotted, while my hind paws are not. My fur protects me in the cold and acts as a camouflage in the snow. I have a very long tail, almost three feet long. I知 smaller than the tiger and the panther and have thicker tail fur. My ears are black with a white or yellow patch in front. A dark streak runs from the middle of the back to the tail. My head is small; my skull measures about six or seven inches. The fur around my face is clear grey, outlined white around my eyes and upper lip.

I am mainly nocturnal, so am rarely seen. But I知 sometimes up and about in the early mornings and late afternoons (crepuscular behaviour). I知 a loner and only pair during the breeding season. I am an excellent rock climber and easily travel on steep terrain, traversing ridgelines, gullies and cliffs. We communicate with one another by scraping the ground or scenting rocks. Snow leopards rarely number more than half a dozen in a particular valley. In prime habitat, my range is about 10 - 30 sq. km. In large areas, I range over an area of about 75 - 100 sq. km. Males and females have overlapping ranges. We could live to celebrate our 21st birthdays in captivity, though our lifespan in the wild is usually only 10-12 years. We prefer to sleep on or near ridges, cliffs and other steep sites which give us a good view of the terrain around.

My diet consists mainly of ibex, bharal, markhor and shapu, though I also eat marmots, pikas, hares and birds such as the chukor partridge and snowcocks. With the depleting populations of ungulates, my natural food is becoming more and more difficult to come by and sometimes I知 forced to eat domestic sheep and goats (ugh!). I can kill prey up to three times my own weight, including a 200 kg. yak. I consume about 20 - 30 adult blue sheep in a year and hunt down large prey once every 10 - 15 days.

Our preferred mating season is between January and March. A female gives birth to two or three cubs in May-June after a gestation period of about three months. The mother gives birth in a safe rocky shelter padded with fur. The cubs open their eyes in 7-9 days and start eating solid food at the age of two months, and start accompanying their mother on hunts when they are three months old. The mother trains them to hunt through their first winter. The cubs mature and leave their mother at 18 - 22 months, though siblings may continue to remain together for a short time before setting out on their own.

We occur in sparse and fragmented populations in the Himalayas of Tibet, Nepal, India, and Bhutan, in Pakistan's Karakorum and Hindu Kush ranges and the mountains of Afghanistan, Mongolia, China as well as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia.

The Government of India and the United States Fish and Wildlife Services developed the Indo-US Snow Leopard Project, which pioneered research on the natural history of our species in the northwest Himalaya in 1985-86. R.S. Chundawat of the Wildlife Institute of India has extensively studied our ecology coupled with our prey species in Hemis National Park, Ladakh using a variety of techniques including remote sensing and GIS studies.

The IUCN has classified us as endangered. It is estimated that there may be only a few thousand of us surviving globally, with a mere 200-600 in India. We are hunted for our pelt and bones. We are also threatened by illegal trade in our fur. Our body parts are used in Chinese medicine, as an alternative to tiger parts. We are sometimes killed by villagers, who are angered by our feeding on their livestock, when they leave us with no other alternative. In some areas of Ladakh, villagers pelt us with stones and frighten us by shouting. Tibetan Buddhism teaches that taking any life is sinful and many of these villagers do not have guns.

In Siachen, the military has been occupying our lands for nearly two decades, slowly eroding our habitat. They leave behind waste of the order of 1,000 kg. per day on the Indian side alone. You may not believe it, but Siachen used to be a very pretty place... Rose plants would grow on the icy cliffs yes, rose plants! The name Siachen comes from 壮ia, which means rose in Balti! We appeal to you to please act before it is too late; to act for our homes and us, and eventually for you and the earth that your children will inherit.

Home | Back | Top | Feedback

Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.