Endangered snow leopards love chilly Himalayas

Binghamton’s harsh winter weather is approaching, and no one is happier than Tushar the snow leopard, who lives at the Binghamton Zoo.

Also known as Panthera uncia, snow leopards are built for the cold. Their natural habitat range is located in Central Asia, stretching from northwest China to Tibet and the Himalayas where the mountains are covered in snow. Snow leopards make their homes in rocky mountainside dens where they sleep and eventually raise their young. Their thick coat has layers of wooly insulation underneath long protective hairs to keep their bodies warm.

Snow leopards’ tails can be up to 3 feet long, and the big cats stay warm by wrapping their tails around themselves at night to protect their noses and lungs from freezing when they sleep. They also have large chest cavities and large nasal cavities that help them warm the air before it hits their lungs. Acting as snow shoes, their enormous paws keep snow leopards walking on top of the snow, and their paw pads grip rocky frozen ground for traction.

Snow leopards are most active at dawn and dusk, making them a crepuscular species. They typically live up to 15 years in the wild and 20 years in captivity. Like most other big cats, they mark their territory by scratching trees with their powerful claws and urinating to leave their scent. Snow leopards are carnivores and usually feed on wild sheep, musk deer, hares and other rodents. They are apex predators, so they maintain the ecological balance in their habitats. Apex predators are those that have no natural predators, so they are the top of the food chain. They are crucial to their ecosystem because they promote stability by controlling competition between their prey species.

The snow leopard is an endangered species, meaning that they are at serious risk of extinction. There are fewer than 6,000 snow leopards left in the wild. Major causes of species extinction are deforestation, habitat loss and poaching. Humans poach snow leopards for their thick coats, which can be sold on the black market for a huge profit. It takes six to 10 snow leopard pelts to produce one fur coat.

Luckily, an organization called the Snow Leopard Trust is working to reduce poaching and raise awareness. This organization sells products made in Central Asia, the leopard’s home region, to provide the native people there with an alternative income. Rather than hunting snow leopards, native families can use these services to earn an income by selling products through the Snow Leopard Trust.

by Mary Joncas, Binghamton Zoo

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