The results of the first-ever survey of its population in India are encouraging. But very little is known about this reclusive animal—which makes it hard to track and protect. We decided to give those cheetahs a break—and focus on a different, lesser known big cat instead.
Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali
First, the basic deets
The snow leopard is classified in the genus Panthera—alongside the lion, tiger, and other big cats. Intriguing fact: Genetically speaking, they are closer to tigers than other leopards. Often dubbed the ‘ghost of the mountains’’, they are shy and prefer the higher, more inhospitable parts of mountain ranges. The cats can be found anywhere between 3,000 and 18,000-plus feet above sea level.
Geography: They are spread across 12 countries—from Central Asia, along the Himalayas—traversing Pakistan, India and all the way to China. In fact, 60% of all snow leopards are in China. You can see their global distribution below:
The range: The leopards need territories that span vast distances. Male leopards require up to 80 square miles—while females have ranges of up to 48 square miles. In all, they are spread across 1.2 million square miles. This makes them harder to track and count than other wild cats—as their territory often crosses international borders.
The hungry, hungry cat: Snow leopards are known for their prodigious appetite—preying on the blue sheep (bharal) of Tibet and the mountain ibex. It can take down animals that are 3X its body weight. Also very amusingly this:
One Indian snow leopard, protected and observed in a national park, is reported to have consumed five blue sheep, nine Tibetan woolly hares, 25 marmots, five domestic goats, one domestic sheep, and 15 birds in a single year.
Not-so-mighty roar: Unlike other big cats, snow leopards can't roar: “Snow leopards have a 'main' call described as a 'piercing yowl' that's so loud it can be heard over the roar of a river.” It basically sounds like a petulant kitty—as you can hear below:
Counting the big cat
The most controversial bit about snow leopards is their numbers. There are very few reliable estimates of their population:
The global estimates of snow leopard numbers are essentially based on expert opinion and guesstimates. Both the estimates of snow leopard range and snow leopard number vary depending on whom you ask! The snow leopard distribution range estimates vary from 1.2 to 3 million square kilometres while the estimates of population size vary from a minimum of 3,920 to a maximum of 10,000.
As we noted before, snow leopards live in inhospitable habitats at extremely high altitudes—and roam across vast distances. Here’s one example of why it’s challenging to count them in India:
While the cold deserts of Ladakh and Spiti are their strongholds, snow leopards range all along the higher Himalayas above the tree line between the altitude of 10,500 to 17,000 feet. Much of this habitat is not accessible by motorable roads and its rarified air makes even routine fieldwork, such as locating suitable sites for placing camera traps, a test of endurance.
Endangered or not? Between 1986 and 2017, the snow leopard was listed as an endangered species on the Red List of Threatened Species issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But in 2017, experts discovered a calculation error in the assessment of its population—and its status was changed to “vulnerable”—sparking a heated debate:
The decision evoked strong criticism from some of the conservationists who questioned the evidence used for the move. Conservationists opposing the IUCN decision argued that reliable estimates of snow leopard population do not exist across the larger part of its range and the demographic modeling actually favours the “endangered” categorisation. Conservationists favouring the IUCN decision contend that IUCN used the best available data and that snow leopard numbers might be far higher than previously thought.
The real problem is that there is no consensus on a baseline for snow leopards—for us to determine whether their numbers have increased or decreased.
Point to note: India, China and Nepal have led global efforts to document snow leopards—but data remains scarce in other parts of the world. Also this: A 2021 World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report pointed out that there is proper data on less than 3% of snow leopard range—and multi-year research is being carried out in only four locations.
The great Indian survey
It took great effort and dedication to carry out the first ever survey of snow leopards in India. The survey covered roughly 120,000 sq km—or 70% of the animal's habitat within our borders. The final number: 718.
The methodology: To be clear, this is an “estimation” of the number of snow leopards. The team used 180,000 camera traps spread across 1,971 locations. These captured 214 unique cats. Then the researchers surveyed “13,450 km worth of trails for…signs of snow leopards such as scat, hair and other body markers.” Then the Wildlife Institute of India—a body of the Environment Ministry—used software and statistical methods to estimate the final tally.
The estimated number in India appears to show a stable—even increasing number. In 2016, researchers ballparked the national total at 516.
But, but, but: There is also hard data that documents increased threats to snow leopards. According to a 2016 report, between 221 and 450 snow leopards were poached every year since 2008. Over 90% of the reported poaching occurred in five countries: China, Mongolia, Pakistan, India and Tajikistan. More importantly, the killings were not driven by a market for exotic pelts or meat. These were mostly retaliatory killings—herders punishing the leopard for killing their livestock.
Lands that make good snow leopard habitat are also often those where livestock herding is the dominant human activity. Meanwhile, only 14-19% of snow leopard range overlaps with protected areas. This means that herders and snow leopards largely live alongside each other, leading to potential for conflict which endangers both livestock and snow leopards.
A new and perilous threat: Feral dogs. There are multiple reports of leopards being chased by packs of ferocious stray dogs in places like Ladakh. This too is a human-made crisis:
“For snow leopards, the biggest threats are no longer hunting and retaliatory killing, it is the feral dog,” confirms [Wildlife Warden Sajid] Sultan. He estimates that no less than 3,000 dogs exist in the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary in Leh district. “You wouldn’t think that dogs would thrive and multiply as they are doing in this rough, rugged terrain where temperatures plummet to -20° Celsius.” But over the decade, unregulated tourism and massive waste generation — more than the region can cope with — has contributed to the explosion in feral dog population, he says.
Needless to say, building dams, roads etc up in the mountains also destroys habitats—as does climate change.
The bottomline: The snow leopard may be out of sight. Let’s not keep it out of mind. It deserves the same attention and resources as its flashier cousin—the tiger.
Indian Express explains the logistics of conducting the survey. BBC News has the 2016 report on poaching. Third Pole offers a detailed look at conservation efforts around the world. Rishi K Sharma in Mongabay is very good on the problem of counting snow leopards. Institute of Animal Law looks at protection laws around the world. The Hindu reports on the rising threat of feral dogs. Also in Mongabay: The effects of climate change.