Range:

Widely but sparsely distributed throughout the mountains of Central Asia

Habitat:

Mainly cliffs and rocky slopes below the permanent snow line, including coniferous forest scrub.

Living at the top of the world

Legendary snow leopards are rarely seen in the wild, as they live high in the mountains of Central Asia. Although the cats freely cross the international boundaries of 12 countries, their secretive behavior and remote habitat among the highest mountains in the world add to their mystery. Because of their shy behavior and uncanny, almost mystical ability to disappear among the rocks, snow leopards have entered the folklore of local peoples in many countries and have been described as shape-changing mountain spirits.

Snow leopards are almost impossible to locate and study in the wild because they blend in with their surroundings so well. Add the extreme conditions of cold and steep terrain, often beyond the limits of human endurance, and it is extremely difficult to radio tag snow leopards for research purposes.

Spotted beauties

Smoky gray and blurred black markings on a pale gray or cream-colored background provide the snow leopard with superb camouflage in the mountains. These “spots” are arranged in distinct rows and get paler in the winter. No wonder this medium-sized cat has been called the ghost cat of the Himalayas! Snow leopards have dense fur not found on cats in warmer climates. They move to different altitudes along with the summer and winter migrations of their prey animals, so their coats vary from fine in the summer to thick in the winter.

Surefooted climbers, snow leopards have been seen at altitudes as high as 18,000 feet (6,000 meters) in summer, which is just a few thousand feet short of climbing Mt. Everest.
Snow leopards can jump and pounce on prey that's as far as six times their body length.
The snow leopard's long, thick, and luxurious tail acts as a built-in comforter when the cat wraps it around its body for added warmth.

Our first snow leopards arrived from the wild on January 21, 1949, a day when San Diego also received its first snow in 99 years! Over the years, we’ve had more snow leopards, and 13 cubs have been born here.

In 2006, we received a pair of snow leopards, Anna and Everett, as a Species Survival Plan (SSP) match. Anna and Everett were unusually compatible, considering that snow leopards, like most cats, are highly solitary. Our pair, in contrast, spent all their time together, grooming each other and even playing together. Unfortunately, after several years without cubs, we discovered that Everett was infertile.

Giving Anna the chance to contribute to the next generation of snow leopards was still important, so the SSP found a new suitor who resided in the nearby Santa Barbara Zoo: Beauregard. Everett and Beau swapped places in 2011. Neither Anna nor Beau took much of a liking to the other at first, but after a few breeding cycles, they seem to have formed a bond and greet each other with mutual grooming first thing in the morning. We hope they will one day produce some much-needed cubs. See post Snow Leopards: Love at Second Sight?

Our snow leopards live in a naturalistic setting of rocky outcroppings and ledges. You can often find Beau high atop his domain. Scent sprays and lotions on boulders, logs, and ground cover, or bones and treats strategically place in challenging areas (to encourage exercise), is part of the daily enrichments items that stimulate the cats’ natural behaviors.

Our snow leopards are not picky and enjoy nearly any unique scent offered to them. Perhaps, as these cats naturally live in very sparse habitat, and therefore have large home ranges, finding scent is important, as the chance that they will happen upon another cat is unlikely. Anna and Beau generally are not as enticed by play toys, although they seem to like manipulating and smashing gourds when no one is looking!

Help for snows
No one knows for sure how many snow leopards remain in the wild, due to their elusive nature and challenging (for humans!) habitat, but it is estimated that there are no more than 4,000 to 6,500 of the ghost cats over their entire range. Historically, habitat remoteness served to protect snow leopards from humans, particularly conflicts with herders and farmers. Indeed, there are no known snow leopard attacks on humans, as the cats would rather run away than fight. But with human encroachment into the high mountain ranges comes competition for living space and food.

The snow leopard’s beautiful coat has also been its undoing, as they have been hunted for their fur until their numbers became severely reduced. Many countries have banned the import of snow leopard fur, but the trade persists, primarily because of human poverty. And although snow leopards are listed as an endangered species, they continue to be hunted for their bones and organs, too, which are used in traditional Asian medicines. Mining activities also continue to degrade habitat, forcing snow leopards and their prey to move into less suitable areas where they can come into conflict with human efforts to survive in the harsh mountain habitats.

Cooperation between governments, conservation agencies, and the general public is essential. If the farmer and herder's quality of life can be improved through better management of grazing lands, payment for livestock preyed upon by the cats, and more health care and education services, then we have a chance to protect snow leopards and other wildlife in the region.

The Snow Leopard Trust
The Snow Leopard Trust, based in Seattle, Washington, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of snow leopards. The Trust believes the cats can be helped through a balanced approach that considers the needs of local people and the environment and includes education programs, training, and support for park and reserve staff in various countries. There are now more than 100 protected areas for snow leopards, 36 of which are found on international borders.

San Diego Zoo Global takes part in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan for snow leopards and provides direct support to the Snow Leopard Trust.