Classification and Range
Snow leopards belong to the family Felidae, which includes 36 species of cats.1 Snow leopards are distributed throughout the high mountains of Central Asia. They are found in 12 different countries over a million square-mile (2.6 million square-km) area.
Snow leopards live in alpine and sub-alpine areas. In summer months they range in high alpine meadows and rocky areas at elevations of 8,900-19,700 feet (2,715-6,009 m). During winter they follow prey to lower elevations. They usually sleep in rocky caves or crevices.
Head, Body Length and Shoulder Height
Adult length (including tail): 6-7.5 feet (1.8-2.3 m)
Adult height: 2 feet (.61m)
Adult weight 60-140 pounds (27-65 kg)
Life expectancy in the wild is unknown; 17-19 years in zoos.
In the wild: Bharal sheep, musk deer, marmots, pikas and occasionally domestic livestock such as sheep and goats.
At the zoo: Commercially prepared feline diet, mutton, beef knuckle bone, chicken, rabbits, beef heart, beef kidney, ground turkey and chicks.
Female snow leopards sexually mature at the age of 2 or 3. Males mature by age 4. The gestation period lasts from 90 to 103 days. Births occur in the wild and in zoos from April through June. Females can give birth to one to five cubs but usually two or three. Most often the mother gives birth in a rocky den lined with her soft fur.
Cubs are born with their eyes closed and it takes about seven days for them to open. They eat their first solid food after two months and follow their mother around at 3 months. Cubs hunt with their mother through at least the first winter. After about 18 months cubs leave their mother to live alone.
On Their Own
Snow leopards are essentially solitary mammals but male and female pairs have shown high sociability and bonding in zoos. In the wild a snow leopard may range across a 38 square-mile (99 sq.-km) area because of its prey’s sparse distribution.
Different snow leopards’ territories may overlap but the animals keep far apart. The only exception to this is when a mated pair occasionally shares a range. In its home area, a snow leopard prefers to stay on high cliffs and steep terrain because it can keep watch for prey or danger. Their huge furry paws are perfect for gripping and jumping on and over rocks and frozen ground. Also, their long tails are used for balance when moving around. Snow leopards, like many other big cats, mark their territory by spraying urine against objects such as rocky outcroppings, bushes or small trees. These cats spray at nose level so other cats can easily smell the markings.
The snow leopard has a thick, pale yellowish-gray coat with black rosettes, small black spots and a black broken stripe of spots along the spine. The belly and underparts are whitish. This coloring gives the snow leopard great camouflage in the snowy mountains and rocky slopes where it lives. Along with this camouflage, small numbers and secretive habits, the snow leopard is very hard to study in the wild. Also, in the wild, these animals are most active during the hours around dawn and dusk.
Location at the Zoo
Woodland Park Zoo’s snow leopard is located at the snow leopard exhibit along the Trail of Adaptations near the Australasia and Willawong Station exhibits. Other felines that can also be seen along the Trail of Adaptations are the Sumatran tiger, clouded leopard and cougar. When visiting the snow leopard at Woodland Park Zoo be very patient. These animals blend in easily with the rocks and vegetation in their exhibit and can be hard to see.
Snow leopards are an endangered species. Demand on the black market for the snow leopard's beautiful spotted coat is one of the main reasons it is in danger. Also, loss of natural habitat due to increasing human and domestic livestock populations is causing the numbers of wild snow leopards to decrease. When humans move into snow leopard territory they often scare away animals which the snow leopard preys on. Because the snow leopard is so elusive it is hard to estimate how many are left in the wild. The number might be as few as 4,000. As of December 1996, the International Species Inventory System listed 467 snow leopards in captivity and 96 percent were captive born.
Woodland Park Zoo has had snow leopards since 1972. The first pair came from the Soviet Union and is now deceased. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums' (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the snow leopard was initially coordinated by the zoo; cubs born here have been sent to Australia, Canada, England and throughout North America to diversify the captive population. Woodland Park Zoo collaborates with other zoos to research the snow leopard and improve reproductive techniques. The zoo also works to educate the public about this and other endangered species.
For more information about our conservation work with the Snow Leopard Trust, visit our Snow Leopard Conservation page in our Conservation section.
How You Can Help!
The effort to save endangered species requires cooperation and support at the international, national, regional and individual levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in Woodland Park Zoo and other conservation organizations of your choice. Please do not buy products made from wild animal parts. Contact your elected representatives and express your views about conservation of endangered species and wild habitats.
Contact Woodland Park Zoo at email@example.com find out about ways you can support conservation programs at the zoo. Discover more about endangered snow leopards by contacting the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) at 206.632.2421 or at their Web site www.snowleopard.org. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival by visiting our How You Can Help page.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Schaller, George B. 1980. Stones of Silence. Journeys in the Himalaya. The Viking Press, New York, NY. 292 p.
Hillard, Darla. 1989. Vanishing Tracks. Four Years Among the Snow Leopards of Nepal. Arbor House/William Morrow, New York, NY. 332 p.
Resnick, Jane P. 1994. Cats. Kidsbooks, Inc., Chicago, IL. 29 p.
Zoobooks. 1993. BigCats. Wildlife Education, Ltd., San Diego, CA. 16 p.