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Snow leopards

Snow leopard
Scientific name: Panthera uncia
Number remaining: 4,000-6,500
Extinction risk: Endangered

About snow leopards

The elegant snow leopard is one of the world’s most elusive cats. Sparsely distributed across 12 countries in central Asia, it’s usually found in high, rugged mountain landscapes at elevations of 3,000-4,500m.

Snow leopards are solitary creatures. They usually hunt at dawn and dusk. They’re successful predators, able to kill prey up to three times their own weight.

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. The pattern of spots is unique to each individual snow leopard.

Poaching, conflict with people and loss of prey are persistent threats to this rare cat. Over the past 20 years, snow leopard numbers have declined by at least 20% – though exact numbers are uncertain because these cats are so elusive.

Find out how you can help save snow leopards

Why snow leopards matter

Snow leopard and cub

As top predators, snow leopards’ favoured prey are the mountain sheep and goats that share their habitat. These herbivores graze on the sparse alpine plants of the region. Without the snow leopard, there would be too many herbivores, which would overgraze and degrade habitat, leaving no food for other wildlife.

The snow leopard’s habitat also provides important resources for the many people who live there – from food and medicine to wood for shelter, heat and fuel. So by helping to protect the snow leopard, we’re helping to conserve its environment for the benefit of people and nature. 

Threats to snow leopards

Habitat fragmentation

In many areas the snow leopard’s habitat is becoming degraded and fragmented because of human settlements and grazing by domestic livestock. 

Snow leopards

Human-wildlife conflict

The snow leopard’s natural prey is also in decline – because of illegal hunting and competition from livestock. As a result, snow leopards sometimes prey on livestock, which can result in local people killing them in retaliation, to protect their livelihoods. This is now one of the biggest threats to snow leopards in many parts of their range.  

Illegal wildlife trade

Snow leopards are also poached for the illegal trade in body parts. Their stunning coat is most in demand, but their bones, claws, meat and organs are also sold, mainly for use in traditional Asian medicine.   Illegal wildlife trade

Climate change

Climate change is an emerging threat. As our planet becomes warmer, plants and trees that are not able to survive in warmer temperatures are now growing higher up the mountains. This is pushing the treeline upwards and therefore reducing the amount of alpine habitat further up. This is shifting, shrinking and fragmenting snow leopard habitat. 

Snow leopard, Hemis National Park

How WWF is helping protect snow leopards

Farmers tending to their Mint crop. Royal Bardia National Park, Nepal
Farmer and wife, tending to their Mint crop in Bardia National Park buffer-zone community, Terai Arc Landscape, Nepal
Image No: 113674

Working with local communities

We work with communities to help manage and reduce conflict between snow leopards and people. For example, we’ve helped build leopard-proof livestock pens, and we’ve set up compensation schemes for farmers who lose livestock to snow leopards. 

Tackling illegal wildlife trade

We also work alongside TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring network) to investigate, expose and crack down on the illegal trade in snow leopard products – and to reduce the demand so that this trade is no longer a significant threat to snow leopard conservation. 

How you can help protect snow leopards