Lee Richardson Zoo

Snow Leopard

Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae

Scientific Name:  Panthera uncia


Description:  Pelage is dense, whitish gray (in summer) to brownish gray (in winter).  Charcoal gray rosettes arranged in distinct rows.  Long tail with 2” long hair.  Eyes are set high on the head.  Thick cushions of hair on paws.  Reach lengths of four to five feet.  Weights ranging from 55 to 165 lbs.  Leaps up to 50 feet.  Characteristics typical of small cats, i.e. markings; crouch when they eat; purr when they are content; do not roar like other big cats but do meow, grunt, moan, growl, hiss; vertical jumps, etc.  

Home Range:  Inhabits northern India and the countries bordering the Himalayas, and the Soviet Union.


Habitat Type:  Dwell in the highest, most remote mountains on earth outside Antarctica.  It lives in rock caves and crevices in the high rhododendron forests and in rocky wasteland above the vegetation line, mostly exceeding 10,000 feet in altitude. Habitat is so remote and rugged, it is difficult to study them and enforce conservation efforts protecting them.


Reproductive Habits:  Breeding season is toward the end of winter.  Females come into season twice if not bred the first time.  After mating, the female makes a nest in the rocks.  The gestation period is 98-103 days.  Each litter contains 2-5 cubs.  They open their eyes at 7-9 days, crawl at 10 days, and run well and eat solid food at 2 months.  They remain with their mother for up to one year of age, as they learn to hunt during the summer months.  Snow leopards reach sexual maturity at 2-3 years.  Most females do not reproduce past the age of 14.  Occasionally, the male will help rear the young.


Diet in Wild: Mountain goats, mountain sheep, deer, small mammals and birds. Prefer rough country where they use rugged terrain to get closer to prey without detection and then jump to surprise prey.  Open areas require longer chases, which they are not good at.


Diet in Zoo:  Prepared feline diet - meat.


General Info: Arguably one of the most beautiful and treasured animals in the world, the snow leopard has very distinctive traits, which over the years have made it much sought after.  It is often called the phantom cat because of its camouflage, elusiveness and scarcity.  It is estimated that the wild population includes between 3500 and 7000 individuals.  281 are currently in captivity.  Snow leopards are generally solitary because of the scarcity of prey, but they are not anti-social when the opportunity arises.  Each stay within their own very large territory. 


Hunted for its fur, the snow leopard has become extremely rare.  Despite protection in the wild for over 40 years, they are still poached for their fur.  Poaching for use in the Asian medicinal trade is also a serious threat.  Pelts may be sold for $30,000 and up.  At the request of the International Furriers, it is illegal to process snow leopard fur, but coats can still be found for sale.


Physical characteristics enable the snow leopard to survive in the harsh conditions in which they live.  Their long, densely covered tail is wrapped around them to provide warmth when they are resting.  The tail is also used for balance in their vertical leaps.  They have thick cushions of hair on their paws to protect them from hot, cold and rough surfaces, and as snow shoes enabling them to move over snow without sinking.  They are very agile and athletic which allows them to maneuver on the rock cliffs easily.  They live on cliffs, rocks and in crevices in very rugged terrain.  They have extremely powerful hind legs which enable them to make incredible jumps horizontally of 45 to 50 feet and vertically from cliff to cliff.  They can jump from heights of 50 to 60 feet and land unhurt.


They are both diurnal and crepuscular hunters.  They hunt by hiding, stalking and ambushing the prey, then kill by strangling its quarry by biting around the throat.  Their eyes are set high on the head to allow them to peer over rocks to watch their prey without their presence being known.  In the winter months, they may follow the prey down into the forest.


Snow leopards have several methods for communicating, such as scraping with their hind legs in loose soil; and scent glands near the tail mark territory, which helps the males and females find each other at mating season.


Conservation StatusThe biggest threat to the snow leopard’s survival is the gradual loss of its natural habitat.  Human invasion for farming, and grazing of domestic animals has forced the snow leopard and its prey into remote areas, where sparse vegetation cannot sustain very many wild sheep and goats.  They are considered pests to those raising livestock because they resort to preying on livestock as availability of wild prey is reduced.  Status in the Wild:  Endangered by IUCN Red List and Appendix l of CITES.

The captive population is managed by a Species Survival Plan (SSP).  An alliance between the International Snow Leopard Trust and zoos provide a point of transfer of biological information between the field and zoos, including the latest information on the genetics of small populations.  This helps with management both in the wild and in captivity.  The goal of the plan is to maintain a demographically and genetically stable captive population of Snow leopards for up to 200 years.



Wildlife Fact File.  Group 1: Mammals.  Card #141.


Wildlife Fact File.  Group 11:  Conservation.  Card #65.


Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia,  vol. 12.  Dr. H. C. Bernhard Grzimek.  Van Nostrand Reinhold Co. 333-335 pg.


Kingdom of Might - The World’s Biggest Cats.  1993.  Tom Brakefield.  Voyager Press.  Stillwater, MN.  145-153 pg.


Santa Barbara Zoo News.  Vol. 34 num. 1.  Snow in Santa Barbara: Endangered Cats Make their Debut.  Pg. 1.