Snow Leopard

Scientific Classificaton

Scientific Name: Uncia uncia

Local Name(s): Ladakhi - Shan, Spiti - Shin, Sikkim - ??, Hindi - Him Tendua, Barfani Tendua

Description

Also known as the Ounce and commonly referred to as the Ghost of the Snow, this big cat is greyish-white to pale brownish with rosettes marking the body. Its colour/tone varies across its range. Gifted with an uncanny camouflage, it literally merges with its habitat; be it rocks and boulders, steppe vegetation or just a bare, open scree slope. A flattish snout and very long, bushy tail are other features that distinguish it from other large cats. The tail in particular is a unique adaptation for its rugged, steep and cold environment helping in balancing as well as keeping warm. It is mainly solitary.

Protected Areas

Distribution & Habitat

Occurs in the central Asian mountain ranges spread over 12 countries. In India, inhabits the Great and the Trans Himalayan regions of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh states. The habitat is rugged, steep and cold desert like with few, or no trees and steppe like vegetation at altitudes between 3,500 to 5,500 m.

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Behaviour

A shy and secretive cat operating mainly between dusk to dawn. However, in areas of low disturbance and during winters, it can be up and about at any time of the day. Preys on wild and domestic ungulates such as blue sheep, ibex, Himalayan tahr, Tibetan argali, cows, horses, donkeys, sheep and goats. Also hunts small mammals and birds such as marmots, woolly hares and snowcock. May enter human habitation or frequent its vicinity in search of prey. Occupies territories ranging from 20 to 200 sq km depending on prey density and features of the habitat, females generally have smaller territories than males. Extensively scent-marks its territories with secretions from scent glands located at the base of the tail as well as with urine at prominent overhangs and on rocks along its usual routes. Makes a circular, deep scrape, often without urine or scat. Generally uses trails along ridge crests, stream edges, or steep gorge/canyon walls. Retires in dens or cliffs during daytime. Social behaviour is less known, but spatial and temporal overlaps seem to allow for greater tolerance of conspecifics of both sexes.

Conservation Status

Categorised as endangered by the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and assigned the highest conservation priorities under Schedule I. Hunting and trade are banned and illegal under this as well as under CITES. IUCN threat category threatened. The Government of India has made special efforts for its conservation by initiating Project Snow Leopard in 2009 with participation of the five snow leopard range states. Nature Conservation Foundation is a major partner NGO in its conception, formulation and implementation. Snow leopard comes in conflict with local agro-pastoral communities across its range due to livestock depredation that causes economic losses to people. It is therefore, persecuted in retaliation through killing or poisoning. Illegal hunting for the trade in bones and skin due to alleged medicinal and traditional uses as well as for modern fashion garments made from its luxuriant coat. Few research studies have been carried out in India, Pakistan, Russia, China, Mongolia and Bhutan; but more intensive and extensive research is needed to understand its biology and ecology and safeguard the species.

Threats

Conflict with local people due to livestock depredation and subsequest retaliatory hunting, poaching and trans-boundary movement of skin and body parts, loss of wild prey species, inadequate protection of its natural habitat, lack of awareness among local people and lacunae in understanding its ecology and conflicts with people are major threats.