From Zoo to You

Lee Richardson Zoo is proud to take part in helping save several species of animals that face serious threats in the wild. One of those species is the snow leopard. Two snow leopard brothers, Bodhi and Omid, live in the Wild Asia area of the zoo. Snow leopards are amazing animals who have adapted to live in their wild environment.


Snow leopards live in the mountains of Central Asia. While their habitat range covers 2 million square kilometers (approximately the size of Greenland or Mexico), there are less than 10,000 snow leopards left in the wild. China is one of the most influential countries for snow leopard conservation efforts, as it contains as much as 60 percent of all habitat areas for the species. In the Himalayas, snow leopards are usually found between 9,800- and 17,700-feet above sea level. In Mongolia and Russia, these cats are found at lower altitudes of 3200 feet.


Snow leopards prefer the broken terrain of cliffs, rocky outcrops, and ravines. This type of habitat provides good cover and clear views to help them find prey and sneak up on it. Each individual snow leopard lives in a defined home range. These cats are not as aggressively territorial as other species, but males still tend to have exclusive home ranges. They overlap with females though. The amount of space each snow leopard needs differs.


Researchers think that this depends on the availability of prey. In areas where prey is abundant, cats inhabit home ranges as small as 30-65 km2. In areas where there is less prey, snow leopards need more land for hunting, and their home ranges may be over 1,000 km2. Snow leopards are nomadic, and constantly move around their home ranges to hunt and leave markings that prevent other cats from moving in. These cats often travel along ridgelines and cliff bases and choose bedding sites with good views over the surrounding terrain.


Its extra-large paws keep the cat from sinking into the snow - like a pair of natural snowshoes. Its round, short ears reduce heat loss, and the wide, short nasal cavity warms the air before it reaches the cat’s lungs. A snow leopard has strong, short front limbs and longer hind limbs. They help launch the cat up to 30-feet in one leap! The snow leopard coat provides excellent camouflage thanks to its grey-white fur with its dark spots and rosettes. Its extra-long tail helps the cat keep its balance and provides extra warmth when it’s wrapped around the body. The snow leopard has soft, dense fur that grows extra-thick during the winter to keep the cat’s body warm.


Snow leopards are shy, elusive cats known for their solitary nature. These cats are most active at dawn and dusk, which is known as a "crepuscular activity pattern". Snow leopards regularly patrol their home range. Sometimes a male and female might be seen together during mating season, or a mother might be seen with her young cubs.


In order to communicate, snow leopards leave markings on the landscape that other cats will find. They scrape the ground with their hind legs and spray urine against rocks to mark their territory or locate mates. Snow leopards make sounds like those made by other large cats, including a purr, mew, hiss, growl, moan, and yowl.


However, snow leopards cannot roar due to the physiology of their throat, and instead make a non-aggressive puffing sound called a ‘chuff’. Snow leopards are not aggressive towards humans. There has never been a verified snow leopard attack on a human being. Even if disturbed while feeding, a snow leopard is more likely to run away than try to defend the site.


Snow leopard numbers are falling. There are less than 10,000 snow leopards left in the wild, and the number could be as low as 3,920 snow leopards left. The threats to the snow leopard are poaching, human-snow leopard conflict, and large-scale mining which reduces the amount of habitat the snow leopards have to survive.


Much of the information for this article, in part or in whole, comes from the Snow Leopard Trust website: snowleopard.org. You can also find out a lot about conservation efforts to save snow leopards on the same site. Lee Richardson Zoo proudly supports the Snow Leopard Trust and their efforts in saving snow leopards and protecting enough area in the wild for the species to live.


To find out more about Lee Richardson Zoo’s two snow leopards Bodhi and Omid, or Lee Richardson Zoo’s other amazing animals, stop by for a visit, like us on Facebook, or visit our website at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.


Max Lakes is the deputy director at Lee Richardson Zoo.