Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Snow Leopard

This is Marwell Zoo's male snow leopard (Panthera uncia syn. Uncia uncia) cub Ajendra at eleven months old. This photo was taken in March 2014 with a borrowed lens (Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM).

Snow leopards are found throughout the mountain ranges of Central Asia, where they are well adapted to their life on the cold and steep mountain sides. They have a very thick coat to protect against the cold. A long flexible furry tail is used for balance, as well as to wrap around themselves for further warmth. They have large paws and short fore-limbs for walking on snow, and large hind-limbs for leaping.

The main prey for snow leopards are wild goats and sheep which live in the mountain ranges, though they will also take smaller prey such as hares and large birds. They are mostly solitary animals, except for when a mother has cubs. The cubs remain with their mother until they are independent, which is usually around 18-22 months.

There has been a lot of debate as to the classification of snow leopards. Traditionally the term "big cat" has been applied to the cats that can roar, which includes tigers, lions, leopards and jaguars. These are all members of the genus Panthera. Snow leopards cannot roar and so originally they were not thought to be big cats, and were classified as Uncia uncia. However, recent studies have revealed that the snow leopard is closely related to the big cats, in particular the tiger. They have been considered part of the genus Panthera since 2008, being classified as Panthera uncia.

Snow leopards are currently classified as "endangered". The primary reasons for this are loss of habitat and prey due to human expansion, illegal hunting for their fur and traditional Asian medicine, and herders killing them to protect their livestock. It is currently estimated that there are between 4,000 and 6,500 snow leopards left in the wild.

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