Snow leopards (Uncia uncia) are found only in the mountains of central Asia and the Himalayas. It is estimated that there are about 4,510-7,350 snow leopards. The total potential snow leopard habitat is about 1,835,000 km 2 in 12 snow leopard range countries. In addition, some 600-700 animals survive in zoos around the world.
In Nepal, snow leopards are distributed along its northern frontier. Of these, the districts of Mustang, Mugu, Dolpo and Humla feature prominently for snow leopard populations. A habitat suitability index model of snow leopard habitat in Nepal 's northern frontier suggests an estimated population of 350-500 animals in Nepal, constituting one-tenth of the world's snow leopard population.
Based on sightings, reports and anecdotal oral history, snow leopard presence has been suggested in 8 mountain protected areas of Nepal. They are Annapurna Conservation Area, Shey Phuksundo National Park , Kangchenjunga Conservation Area, Manaslu Conservation Area, Makalu Barun National Park , Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve, Sgarmatha National Park and Langtang National Park.
The smoky-gray snow leopard weighs about 35-55 kg (female: 35-40 kg, male: 45-55), measures about 1.8-2.3 m in length from head to tail and stands 60 cm at its shoulder. Snow leopards are characterized by a short, broad muzzle, short fore limbs and long hind limbs that provide agility in steep and rugged terrain. Their body fur is tinged with yellow with prominent dark grayish-black rosettes and spots. The characteristic long tail aids in balancing on cliffs and rugged places. Also, snow leopards wrap their body and face with the tail for comfort and warmth against the cold. Large paws perhaps help them walk better on snow. Mating occurs between January and March. Cubs are born in late spring or early summer, and may spend their first few weeks in rock crevices which serve as hidden den sites. Cubs become independent of their mothers at 18-22 months of age.
Despite Nepal 's continual effort to save the snow leopard, its long-term viability is threatened by the conflict from livestock depredation and retaliatory killings, poaching, and loss of habitat because of high density of livestock in grazing areas.
The snow leopard-human conflict is one of the main threats to its survival because it is known to kill sheep, goats, horses, and yak calves. Degradation of snow leopard habitat continues due to year-round grazing pressure following the closure of the Tibetan border some 30 years ago.
As snow leopards are opportunistic predators, they often kill livestock because of high encounter rates and ineffective guarding by herders. Poaching is primarily associated with the trade in snow leopard pelts, bones, and body parts that are used in oriental medicine. As an illicit trans-border market exists between northern frontiers of Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, poaching has become lucrative.
Action Performance and Opportunities
Of all protected areas in Nepal, Annapurana Conservation Area, Shey Phuksundo National Park and Kangchenjunga Conservation Area have initiated several grass-root measures in conservation. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) of National Trust for Nature Conservation has instituted 8 local snow leopard conservation committees (SLCCs) since 1993.
Likewise, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and WWF Nepal have supported several workshops on survey methods and field techniques in Shey Phuksundo and Kangchenjunga since 1999. In addition, WWF has produced a "Snow Leopard Manual: Field Study Techniques for the Kingdom of Nepal ", which is a comprehensive and valuable field guide.
In Shey Phuksundo, there are 5 snow leopard conservation committees comprising herders, women and village leaders and elders. Similar efforts are being made in Kangchenjunga Conservation Area (KCA) through the WWF Nepal. Last year, the KCA survey and monitoring team destroyed 200 large mammal traps and snares, confiscated 2 muzzle-loading guns, and several musk deer skins. The team has a strong presence of local communities of Taplejung, who can perform field surveys independently. Therefore, such activities not only gather much needed information on the snow leopard and its prey, but improve human resource development and deter poaching activities.
Several national and international conservation organizations and development agencies are now involved in the conservation of the snow leopard. They include Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Department of Forest, National Trust for Nature Conservation, WWF Nepal, International Snow Leopard Trust, UNDP/ GEF, USAID and many others.