Snow Leopards
Snow Leopards of Central Asia

Photograph by: Steve Winter, National Geographic June 2008

The snow leopard, uncia uncia, lives a solitary life in remote areas of 12 Central Asian countries. It has a beautiful spotted coat considered desirable by trophy hunters, who may travel a long way for the chance to track and kill the rare cat. Many livestock herders who live inside the species' range consider the snow leopard a pest—not unlike a wolf, though if they manage to trap, shoot, or poison a cat that's preying on their flocks, they can sell the pelt illegally for a veritable fortune. These and other threats, such as the loss of wild prey to hunters and the loss of prime habitat to human encroachment, have shrunk the snow leopard population—estimates of the number still living in the wild run as low as 3,500. Writer Douglas Chadwick traveled around India and Mongolia trying to catch a glimpse of a snow leopard. Photographer Steve Winter also went to those countries and to Pakistan, setting up many remote camera traps that captured photos of snow leopards when they came out of the shadows.

Chadwick, Douglas H. "Out of the Shadows." National Geographic (June 2008), 106-129.

Other Resources
"Snow Leopard: Principal Threats." IUCN-World Conservation Union. Species Survival Commission, Cat Specialist Group.

Theile, Stephanie. Fading Footprints: The Killing and Trade of Snow Leopards. TRAFFIC International, 2003.

Snow Leopards Captured on Film

Nearly four decades ago George Schaller of the New York Zoological Society patiently roamed the craggy mountains of Pakistan's Chitral Valley, following tracks in the snow, searching for the legendary, beautiful, and elusive snow leopard. He spent many hours contemplating and recording the cat's behavior. His photographs of snow leopards—the first images of them in the wild—ran in an article titled "Imperiled Phantom of Asian Peaks" in National Geographic’s November 1971 issue. Schaller later published his images in a book called Stones of Silence.

Fifteen years later, wildlife conservationist Rodney Jackson set up camera traps high in the peaks of Nepal and captured thrillingly candid portraits of snow leopards for his June 1986 National Geographic cover story, written with Darla Hillard. Another first was the bite Jackson received while successfully collaring five of the cats during a four-year NG-sponsored radio-tracking study. His bandaged hand can be seen in a photograph in the article.

Chadwick, Douglas H. "Out of the Shadows." National Geographic (June 2008), 106-129.

Other Resources
Schaller, George B. "Imperiled Phantom of Asian Peaks." National Geographic (November 1971), 702-707.

Jackson, Rodney, and Darla Hillard. "Tracking the Elusive Snow Leopard." National Geographic (June 1986), 793-812.

Snow Leopards Thrive in Zoos Around the World

Work is being done in communities within the snow leopard's natural range to offset the many threats to the decreasing wild population. Groups such as the Snow Leopard Conservancy and the Snow Leopard Trust have started education and insurance programs designed to help local people value this wild animal. Outside of the cat's natural range, these and other organizations work to conserve the global population through captive-breeding programs.

In 1903 the New York Zoological Society's Bronx Zoo became the first zoo in the Western Hemisphere to exhibit a snow leopard. The breeding program developed there has produced about 80 cubs, many of which have been sent to other zoos in North America and in several other countries.

The newest wild-born snow leopard at the Bronx Zoo—now operated by the Wildlife Conservation Society—was found orphaned in the Naltar Valley of Pakistan in July 2005. In a major diplomatic operation, the State Department, working with several wildlife conservation organizations, helped relocate the cub to the U.S. Since making his debut in the Himalayan Highlands section of the Bronx Zoo on September 25, 2007, the cub, named Leo, has led an active life, playing on a rocky hillside and supplementing his diet by hunting small animals that wander into the exhibition space.

When Leo is old enough to breed—three to four years old—his genes
will help strengthen the already genetically robust North American captive-breeding program. He will live in New York until he returns to his home valley in Pakistan, where another captive-breeding facility is to be built. In the meantime, Patrick Thomas, Bronx Zoo curator of mammals, says, "Leo is a perfect example of being an ambassador for his wild counterparts."

Elder, Scott. "Snow Leopard Rescue." NG Kids (December 2007/January 2008), 27-29.

Martin, Cecelia. "Bronx Zoo Provides New Home for Pakistani Snow Leopard." Washington File, August 8, 2006.

Search for "education" and "empowering villagers." Snow Leopard Conservancy.

Search for "community-based conservation" and "snow leopard conservation timeline." Snow Leopard Trust.

"Snow Leopard Orphan Gets a Fresh Start at the Bronx Zoo." Wildlife Conservation Society, August 10, 2007.

"Brief History of the Bronx Zoo." Wildlife Conservation Society.

Snow Leopard Trust Founder Helen Freeman

Breeding management is an important part of building a captive snow leopard population. The Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington, which has had snow leopards since 1972, was among the first zoos in the United States to set up a breeding program.

Helen Freeman, the zoo's education curator, played a vital role in building the captive population. In 1981 she founded the International Snow Leopard Trust; she also helped establish the Snow Leopard Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA).

Freeman was the first snow leopard studbook keeper for the AZA's cooperative breeding program, which manages the entire North American snow leopard gene pool. A genetically diverse population is essential to the species' long-term survival. At Woodland Park, Freeman created a self-sustaining population—the zoo no longer needs to bring in snow leopards from the wild.

Since her death in 2007, Freeman has been remembered for working tirelessly to establish community-based programs in Central Asian countries that benefit snow leopard populations and local people. This Snow Leopard Trust anniversary video shows Freeman discussing her vision.

"Species Survival Plan Program." Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Marren, Peter. "Helen Freeman: Conservationist Who Worked to Save the Snow Leopard." Independent, October 6, 2007.

Other Resources
Jackson, Rodney M., and others. Surveying Snow Leopard Populations With Emphasis on Camera Trapping: A Handbook. Snow Leopard Conservancy, 2005.

McCarthy, Thomas M., and Guillame Chapron, eds. Snow Leopard Survival Strategy. International Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Network, 2003.

Schaller, George B. Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe. University of Chicago, 1998.

Sunquist, Fiona, and Mel Sunquist. Wild Cats of the World. University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Last updated: April 17, 2008