The mysterious cat of the high mountains

There are 36 species of wild cats in the world today and they inhabit all continents except for Australasia and Antarctica. Despite a huge variation in their size from the massive Siberian tiger (200-325 kg) to the prim black-footed cat (1-2 kg) their behaviour is remarkably similar. All cats are supreme predators and are built to stalk and kill.

Amongst these, there is a beautiful cat found in snow clad mountains that derives its name from the characteristic feature of the habitat it occurs in. Snow leopards ( Pantherauncia ) live in the mountains of Central Asia in 12 countries covering about 2 million square kilometres. They prefer steep, rugged and broken terrain and are found at altitudes ranging from 3000 to 5500 meters.

They are perfectly adapted for their high mountain life. Their well-developed chest helps them breathe in a low oxygen environment, strong and short forelimbs with large paws help them move in the snow and long woolly fur insulates them from the cold. They have a long, thick and furry tail, which helps them in balancing on precarious mountain slopes.

Did you know that snow leopards also use their tail for wrapping around their body and face to keep them warm? Another interesting fact about snow leopards is that unlike their other big cats, they cannot roar.

Snow leopards are predators and their diet includes blue sheep, ibex and wild argali sheep and they occasionally take smaller prey such as marmots, hare and snow cock as well.

No one knows how many snow leopards are there out in the wild as they are very shy and elusive and are rarely seen. Biologists are now using a technique called camera trapping to study them better.

A camera trap is basically a modified camera with a built in heat and motion sensor. The camera triggers automatically whenever any animal or human passes by it. A biologist places these cameras on the paths and trails that snow leopards use. Any snow leopard passing by such a camera essentially triggers its own picture. These photographs are then used to identify snow leopard individuals from the dark grey rosettes and spots on their coat.

Snow leopards are difficult to sight, but they leave tell-tale evidence of their presence in the form of pugmarks, scrapes, scent marks and their faeces. This helps them communicate with each other.

Illegal hunting for their fur and bones, loss of habitat and lack of awareness about their importance in the ecosystem are some of the threats that they face. Also, snow leopards and people share the same mountains, and sometimes when snow leopards kill livestock , people get angry and kill snow leopards. However, children living in these mountains are learning more about snow leopards in their schools and they want to protect and conserve them.

So, next time you see your pet housecat cuddle up on your lap for warmth, remember there is a snow loving cat living in the mountains where temperatures are as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius!

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 18 July 2012.