Meet the Mysterious Snow Leopard
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN FINLAND
FEW animals are as mysterious as the snow leopard. Only a handful of people have seen one in the wild, and very little is known about how these animals live.
The snow leopard is a prominent attraction at Finland’s Helsinki Zoo. The curious habits of this feline—considered by many to be the most beautiful of the large cats—make it a fascinating creature.
Cat on the Top of the World
Although it can be found in no less than a dozen countries from Bhutan to Russia, the snow leopard is usually associated with the Himalayas. These mountains—the highest in the world—are breathtakingly beautiful. But they are no place for humans. Indeed, the mountains of Central Asia are among the coldest and most rugged places in the world.
The snow leopard, however, is quite content at altitudes of 10,000 to 15,000 feet [3,000–4,500 m]. Its thick coat of fur provides adequate protection against the cold, while a large nasal cavity enables the animal to obtain the needed oxygen in the thin mountain air. The snow leopard’s broad, furry paws allow it to move nimbly through deep snow. But what about the rugged mountain terrain? This is no problem because using its long furry tail as a rudder, the snow leopard can leap some 50 feet [15 m] from one cliff to another, surpassing the jump of even the gray kangaroo.
The snow leopard generally weighs between 60 and 100 pounds [27–45 kg] and measures about two feet [60 cm] tall and seven feet [2 m] from nose to tail. But what makes the snow leopard truly unique is its disposition. “It is very mild-tempered,” says Leif Blomqvist, curator of the Helsinki Zoo. “The snow leopard forms relationships with humans easily, and in the morning at the zoo, it comes to greet its caretaker.” Blomqvist adds that the mild temperament is observed even in the cubs. “They don’t struggle when zoo employees weigh and vaccinate them,” he says. But what if you were to handle any other type of leopard of the same age? “The task is almost impossible,” Blomqvist says. “You need protective clothing and gloves, as they fight back violently.”
Why Seldom Seen?
Playing hide-and-seek with a snow leopard would be very frustrating, for this white and gray cat seems to blend like a chameleon into the mountain terrain. Its effective camouflage is one reason why so few snow leopards have been seen in the wild. Why, some researchers who have ventured into the rough mountains to study this mysterious cat have returned home without a single glimpse of the animal!
The fact that snow leopards are such hermits adds to the difficulty of sighting one. Additionally, their territories are quite large, since their prey, which is usually a wild sheep or goat, tends to be scarce in the mountains. Sadly, poachers—greedy for the snow leopard’s coat of fur—have contributed toward reducing their population to the extent that currently the snow leopard is listed as an endangered species.* Zoos are doing much to preserve this exceptional animal.
The Snow Leopard in Helsinki
The Helsinki Zoo has been quite successful in breeding snow leopards. In fact, in 1976 this facility was given the assignment of keeping the international studbook of the snow leopard. The studbook has been a useful tool in managing the captive snow leopard population.
Similar studbooks are kept of many species living in zoos but especially of endangered species. A studbook lists details of all zoo-dwelling animals of one particular species. Zoos are responsible to inform the studbook keeper of new cubs as well as of transfers and deaths of animals. The studbooks are used to select suitable breeding partners for captive animals. “Because such populations are relatively small, degeneration and inbreeding can easily occur,” explains Blomqvist.
More than a hundred cubs have been born in the Helsinki Zoo alone, and most of them have been sent to foreign zoos. To ensure variety in the population, captive snow leopards are frequently exchanged between zoos. The captive snow leopard population is now so varied that there is no more need to trap those still in the wild.
Many zoos, including the one in Helsinki, contribute to wildlife conservation by striving to maintain a genetically healthy animal population. Of course, they also provide visitors with a fascinating glimpse of unique animals. Truly, the snow leopard makes a lasting impression and is a credit to the Creator, who ‘has made everything pretty.’—Ecclesiastes 3:11.
It is difficult to specify how many snow leopards are left. Estimates range from 3,500 to 7,000.
[Picture Credit Lines on page 17]
Page 16: Center: ©Aaron Ferster, Photo Researchers; page 17: Top right: © Korkeasaaren Eläintarha/Markku Bussman; bottom: ©T. Kitchin/V. Hurst, Photo Researchers
[Picture Credit Line on page 18]
Chuck Dresner/Saint Louis Zoo