The Magnificent–and Elusive–Snow Leopard


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     When the great writer/naturalist Peter Matthiessen died earlier this year, I read a tribute to him that piqued my interest.  Having noticed his book THE SNOW LEOPARD on numerous friends’  bookshelves over several decades, I  decided now was the time to read it.

     What an extraordinary book!  Published in 1978, the book chronicles Matthiessen’s trek along the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas a few years earlier, along with conservation biologist George Schaller.  While Schaller was on a mission to learn more about the mating habits of bharal sheep, Matthiessen’s journey was personal and spiritual.  Both men longed to catch a glimpse of the snow leopard, a predator of the bharal that had been spotted by westerners only twice in the preceding 25 years.

     While neither Matthiessen nor Schaller did see a snow leopard during the two months they walked the rugged Himalayas, they did come across prints and scat left by the animal.  Indeed, it would have been next to impossible actually to see the snow leopard.  

     Below is a beautifully written description of the extremely elusive animal from Matthiessen’s book:  

“By firelight, we talk about the snow leopard.  Not only is it rare. . . but it is wary and elusive to a magical degree, and so well camouflaged in the places it chooses to lie that one can stare straight at it from yards away and fail to see it.  Even those who know the mountains rarely take it by surprise:  most sightings have been made by hunters lying still near a wild herd when a snow leopard happened to be stalking. . . .

“The snow leopard is usually found above 5000 feet and occurs as high as 18,000 feet.  Though nowhere common, it has a wide range in the mountains of Central Asia, from the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan eastward along the Himalaya and across Tibet into southern China, and also northward in the mountains of the USSR and west China to the Sayan Range, on the Siberian border of Mongolia. . . 

“The typical snow leopard has pale frosty eyes and a coat of pale misty gray, with black rosettes that are clouded by the depth of the rich fur.  An adult rarely weighs more than a hundred pounds or exceeds six feet in length, including the remarkable long tail, thick to the tip, used presumably for balance and for warmth, but it kills creatures three times its own size without much difficulty.  It has enormous paws and a short-faced heraldic head, like a leopard of myth;  it is bold and agile in the hunt, and capable of terrific leaps;  and although its usual prey is the blue sheep, it occasionally takes livestock, including young yak of several hundred pounds.  This means that man would be fair game as well, although no attack on a human being has ever been reported.

“The snow leopard is the most mysterious of the great cats;  of its social system, there is nothing known.  Almost always it is seen alone;  it may meet over a kill, as tigers do, or it may be unsociable and solitary, like the true leopard.” 


The book left me wondering how snow leopards are doing today, 40 years after Matthiessen’s trek.

I did a little research and learned that yes, the snow leopard is endangered.  Fewer than 7,000 are believed to exist in the wild.  Despite the remoteness of their range, these animals have been threatened by poaching and by the overhunting of the animals on which they prey.  But perhaps the greatest long-term threat to the snow leopard, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is global warming, which could result in a loss of  30% of the snow leopards in the Himalayas.  

But there is good news too.  Protective efforts by international conservation organizations, like the WWF and the Snow Leopard Conservancy, together with governments and local communities in the snow leopard’s range have been effective.

For example, conservation groups facilitated a joint effort among Central Asian nations to create a large protected area for snow leopards that spans parts of China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.  And China and Pakistan are cooperatively managing adjacent natural reserves in their two countries. 

Also, with international help, 55 villages in Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains and 65 villages in northern Pakistan have recently formed committees to protect snow leopards and safeguard other natural resources.  These committees have deployed almost 200 volunteer rangers who monitor snow leopards and their prey and enforce anti-poaching regulations.
Even the monks of remote Buddhist monasteries in the snow leopard’s range are getting into the act.  They are preventing poaching by patrolling the forests near their monasteries. – April Moore







4 Responses to “The Magnificent–and Elusive–Snow Leopard”

  1. James Says:

    I have never seen the snow leopard in the wild. The creature, as described, is a solitary entity, existing within a framework as created by it`s species-specific behavior. What is it like to view the world through the eyes of this animal, deprived of a human cortex, but conscious of it`s surroundings, acutely aware of our presence before we are of theirs. What is it like to be a snow leopard?

  2. Tanya Says:

    I, too, have long been fascinated with this beautiful, solitary, and aloof creature. We saw a National Geographic special last year about a small team of researchers who went in search of a sighting. As I recall, it took many months before they were successful.

    I have sewn a lot of needlepoint canvasses and one of my favorites is a depiction of a stalking snow leopard with his tail swirling around his body.

    Thanks, April

  3. James Says:

    This is the photo I meant to post.×455.jpg?e5844b

  4. Judy Says:

    Thank you for this, April. I read the book a number of years ago, makes me want to read it again. I was interested to read about the protective efforts. I think many humans are fascinated by cats.

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