The plight of the endangered snow leopard is a familiar story. There are only a few thousand individuals left in the wild due to hunting for their fur and bones, which are used in traditional Asian medicine. In addition, as their habitat in the high mountains of Central Asia is fragmented by humans, their main prey, blue sheep and ibex, disappears, and snow leopards are compelled to hunt domestic livestock. Local herders, living a hard life in a harsh environment, shoot and poison them in retaliation.
Accredited zoos around the country are fighting to save this important species one cub at a time. Just last week the Philadelphia Zoo welcomed two little snow leopard cubs. In the last year, cubs have also been born at Cape May County Zoo, John Ball Zoo, Chattanooga Zoo and Tautphaus Park Zoo, bringing the total number of snow leopards to 142 in 57 AZA-accredited institutions.
Snow leopards are incredibly hard to study in the wild because of their cryptic coloring, solitary lifestyle and inaccessibility of their habitat. As a result, it is hard to estimate just how many snow leopards are left, and it may be the least understood of the big cats. In fact, close-up footage of a wild snow leopard was first filmed only four years ago. In this dramatic video from BBC’s Planet Earth, a mother of a one-year-old cub seems to defy certain death by rushing down sheer cliffs during a hunt.
Because snow leopards are so elusive, research of these animals in zoos has been critical to gaining a better understanding of the species and how to protect them. For example, the Snow Leopard Species Survival Plan (SSP) Program, a national management program run with the cooperation of accredited zoos, is working with Western University and Oregon State University to sequence the snow leopard genome. Snow leopards at Woodland Park Zoo have been instrumental in testing radio collars and motion sensor cameras for field studies. A curator at the Bronx Zoo discovered that tigers, cheetahs and snow leopards are extremely attracted to the smell of Calvin Klein Obsession for Men, knowledge that is now being used to attract wild snow leopards to cameras to photograph individuals and track habitat use.
“Snow leopards are fascinating animals because they so clearly demonstrate the adaptations necessary for living in cold, rough terrain, from their coloration to their tail, longer than most cats for better balance,” said Jay Tetzloff, Zoo Superintendent of the Miller Park Zoo and Snow Leopard SSP Coordinator. “This beautiful, secretive cat should be protected for future generations to appreciate.”