Snow leopard: A close encounter of the rarest kind

Getting up close and almost personal with one of the world’s most beautiful and inscrutable big cats.

According to the poet T.S. Eliot:

“Before a Cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend,
Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream;
And you might now and then supply
Some caviare, or Strassburg Pie,
Some potted grouse, or salmon paste —
He’s sure to have his personal taste.”

This may not apply to the elegant snow leopard. Solitary creatures, their beautiful spotted coats change with the seasons – from a background of thick, white fur to keep them warm and camouflaged in winter, to a fine yellow-grey coat in the summer. And the pattern of spots is unique to each individual snow leopard.

Poaching, conflict with people and loss of prey persistently threaten this rare cat. Over the past 20 years, snow leopard numbers have declined by at least 20% – although exact numbers are uncertain because the cats are so elusive. Currently, over 160 zoos worldwide have snow leopards on view (71 in Europe and 68 in North America). The magnificent animal in this video can bee seen at Marwell Zoo in England:

Snow leopards inhabit the mountains of 12 countries of Central Asia. They prefer steep, rugged terrain with cliffs, ridges, gullies, and slopes interspersed with rocky outcrops. Their prey are the mountain sheep and goats that share their habitat and which graze on the sparse alpine plants of the region. Without the snow leopard, there would be too many herbivores, which would overgraze and degrade the land, leaving no food for other wildlife.

There may be 4,500 – 7,500 snow leopards left in the wild. Up to a third of the snow leopard’s range falls along international borders where relations between some of the countries are hostile, complicating conservation initiatives. Climate change is a further threat. As the planet becomes warmer, plants and trees unable to survive in cooler climes are now growing higher up the mountains. This is pushing the treeline upwards and reducing the alpine habitat, shrinking and fragmenting the home of the snow leopard.

Fortunately, in 2012 Kyrgyzstan initiated a government-led effort to create a Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Plan. Meetings took place in 2012 and 2013, attended by international NGOs including the Snow Leopard Conservancy and representatives of all 12 snow leopard range countries, to come up with a plan of action. In October 2013, the Global Initiative was endorsed and signed by every range country.

Called “Secure 20 by 2020”, participants set a goal of securing 20 snow leopard populations by the year 2020. This means that each population will have at least 100 breeding-age snow leopards in a landscape conserved with the involvement of local communities and which supports adequate prey and has functional connectivity with other snow leopard landscapes, some of which cross international boundaries.

It’s an important initiative that deserves all the support it can get. Meanwhile, getting up close and personal with a snow leopard in a zoo is as good as it gets.

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