Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, India
IUCN status : Endangered
Aptly named, Snow Leopards are adapted completely to live in snow covered areas at an altitude of 3,500 m or more. It is marginally smaller than the common leopard. Its pale smoky grey coat, with dark grey rosettes offers excellent camouflage. They are so rarely sighted that they are called ‘Ghost Cats’.
Snow leopards have adapted to survive the inhospitable environment of the higher Himalaya. Their nasal cavities are enlarged to facilitate breathing in thin air. Short limbs with well-developed cardiac muscles make them skilled cliff climbers. Their fur is 5 to 8 cm thick and extends up to 12 cm. near the abdomen. Their thick furry tails are almost 90 per cent of their body length, which aid in balancing while they run along the narrow cliffs to chase their agile prey. At times they are also used as a sort of muffler to wrap around the body to remain protected from the icy gales! The paws are adequately padded to walk on cold, snowy terrain. However, they prefer rocky surfaces, which help them maneuver better when chasing prey. Water, in liquid form, is scarce in the higher reaches and they have been seen eating snow to quench their thirst.
Snow Leopards, like most of their felidae cousins, are territorial and can roam across 30-65 sq km. However, lack of food can result in territorial overlaps. At times three to four snow leopards socialize to share the same territory with merged hunting grounds. Snow leopards do scent mark their territories but primarily to find a mate. The marking is done by scratching their body on rocks, spraying urine and defecating.
Though solitary in nature, these animals socialize during the mating season between January and March. Gestation periods vary from 90 to 110 days and cubs are generally therefore born between April and July. The cubs I photographed were around nine to ten months old. Pregnant snow leopards often stay hidden in rocky crevices to give birth away from the stress of frequent alarm calls. A litter contains one to five cubs and their eyes remain closed for the initial seven days. Sadly, most cubs don’t survive to see adulthood on account of natural and human impacts. Mothers will raise the cubs alone and if unable to bring down adequate prey, the cubs often die of starvation. Snow leopard cubs begin walking after five weeks and remain dependent up to two years, by which time they are groomed and ready to hunt on their own.
It has an imperfectly ossified hyoid bone and hence it cannot roar. Snow leopards race against equally fast preys along the narrow ridges. Almost 90 per cent of daytime hunting attempts end in failure. Snow leopards can chase their prey for distances of up to 300 m and when successful a Bharal (Blue Sheep) or an Ibex could keep them satisfied for up to two weeks. This implies that they require 20-30 adult Bharal or Ibex annually. Apart from Ibex and Bharal, they also feed on Argali, Pika, Marmot, Snowcock and Woolly Hare. They will generally drag their prey to crevices, which are cool enough to keep the kill edible for days. This also safeguards the kill from scavengers such as the bone-breaking Lammergeiers, Griffon Vultures, Himalayan Wolves and Red Foxes. Scat inspections have revealed that during periods of scarcity, Snow Leopards may even survive on alpine vegetation.