Photo of the Month: Snow leopard

Snow leopard; PHOTO CREDIT: Jamie Pham

Status: This species (Panthera uncia) is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) primarily due to poaching, habitat loss, and prey depletion. There are between 4,000 and 7,000 of these leopards left in the wild; more precise estimates are difficult due to the cats’ elusive nature and the inaccessibility of their rugged habitat.

Habitat: These cats live high in the cold mountains that span Central Asia: from the Himalayas in the south, across the Tibetan Plateau, and up to the mountains of southern Siberia in the north. The cats live in habitat that ranges from alpine meadows to treeless, rocky outcroppings.

Diet: Snow leopards are powerful hunters, often killing prey up to three times their own weight. They most commonly eat wild sheep and goats (such as blue sheep and Asiatic ibex), but they will also eat smaller animals such as marmots, hares, rodents, and game birds. As opportunistic predators, snow leopards have been reported to feed on livestock when their natural prey becomes scarce.

Snow leopards are specially adapted to live in cold, high elevations. They have evolved large nasal cavities to breathe the thin mountain air, and their thick gray fur keeps them warm and well camouflaged. Their long tails help them balance on steep, rocky slopes and can be wrapped around their bodies for added warmth and protection for their ears and face. Though they have these cold weather adaptations, snow leopards tolerate heat well and can endure temperature extremes from 40 degrees below zero to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

During the nighttime hours of May 12 and 13, two cubs were born at the L.A. Zoo to three-year-old mother Georgina and five-year-old father Fred; the male and female cubs are the first offspring for these adult snow leopards who were paired in July 2015 as a part of a Species Survival Plan (SSP).

The five-month-old cubs can be seen on exhibit with their mother throughout the day, though they rotate between their yard and off-exhibit housing to allow their father, Fred, some outdoor time.