The Snow Leopard
‘Sabu’, the elusive ghost cat of the Himalayas has a near mythical status comparable with the Yeti.
The snow leopard (Uncia uncia), sometimes known as the ounce, is a moderately large cat native to the mountain ranges of Central Asia. The classification of this species has been subject to change and its exact taxonomic position is still unclear.It cannot roar, despite possessing an incomplete ossification of the hyoid bone, which was previously thought to be essential for allowing the big cats to roar. However, new studies show that the ability to roar is due to other morphological features, especially of the larynx, which are absent in the snow leopard.
The Himalayan Snow leopard is a descendant of the fabled Saber-toothed cat, as are other large cats, and lives high up in the mountains of northern India, countries that border the Himalayas, and into Russia. The snow leopard is also called "sabu" by the local inhabitants of the mountainous regions that is home to this cat species. Sabu, roughly means, "Ghost Cat." They acquired this nickname because snow leopards are nocturnal hunters and rarely come down below the 15,000 foot level, so they are rarely seen by humans. A research team that set out to observe the habits of the snow leopard spent over four years searching for this species and saw a total of only 18 of the elusive creatures.
Snow leopards have long thick fur, the base color of which varies from smokey grey to yellowish tan, with whitish underparts. They have dark grey to black open rosettes on their body with small spots of the same colour on their heads and larger spots on their legs and tailSnow leopards show several adaptations for living in cold mountainous environments. Their bodies are stocky, their fur is thick, and their ears are small and rounded, all of which help to minimise heat-loss. Their feet are wide, which distributes their weight better for walking on snow, and they have fur on their undersides to increase their traction on steep and unstable surfaces, as well as to assist with minimising heat-loss. Snow leopards' tails are long and flexible which help them to maintain their balance. The tails are also especially thickly covered with fur which, apart from minimising heat-loss, allows them to be used like a blanket to protect their faces when asleep.
It's light colored coat keeps it cool in summer and as winter approaches, the snow leopard grows a thicker, more airtight fur covering to provide protection from the harsh Himalayan winter climate. It's winter coat has spots arranged in distinct rows. They are a grayish color and have a rounder shape. These spots aid the cat in being able to blend into the winter surroundings. Snow leopards grow to 4-5 feet in length and are around 3 feet tall ( at the shoulder) when full grown. They weigh anywhere from 80 lbs for the female, to 165 lbs. for the largest male. Their breeding season falls toward the end of winter, the female has a gestation period of 95 to 105 days resulting in a litter of from 2 to 5 cubs with the normal number being 2 cubs. Their life span in the wild is usually around 8 to 10 years but live twice that long in captivity.
These cubs are born with a much darker coat than their mother and are much easier to spot by predators so she must be especially careful of their welfare for the first few months. They are born blind and will start to crawl around in around 2 weeks. When they are 60 days old, they are able to eat solid food although they may continue to suckle for several more weeks. They stay with their mother until they are around 1 to 1 1/2 years old.
Snow leopards are solitary hunters and because of the harsh climate in which they live, they must range over many miles in order to find sufficient food to live. Favorite prey includes wild goats, mountain sheep and rodents. These small leopards wait patiently on rocky ledges for small animals to show themselves. They are extremely agile and can run down most any small animal that ventures into it's hunting range. Their foot pads are surrounded with thick fur to keep their feet from freezing as they wait (sometimes for hours at a time) for prey to show up.
Because of the inaccessibility of much of the snow leopards habitat the exact numbers left in the wild is unknown, but some estimates place the figure as low as 4,500 to 5000. The decline in population has, in the past, been mainly due to the snow leopards much sought after fur and although the animal is protected in most areas, local hunting and trapping still remains a threat. As with the Tiger, the snow leopard is still hunted for its bones, which are commonly used in many Chinese medicines and this, along with the enforced decline of many of the cats larger prey species, places continuing pressure on the remaining numbers of snow leopard left in the wild. Most snow leopards are not killed by only the poachers but quite a few die by falls from rocky cliffs and by landslide.Because of this, the snow leopard is listed in the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Animals as Endangered and it is probable that without continuing action by many of the world’s conservation organisations they may become extinct in the wild.
Snow leopard in heraldry
The snow leopard (almost invariably known in heraldry as the ounce) (Aq Bars) is a national symbol for Tatars and Kazakhs: a snow leopard is found on the official seal of the city of Almaty, and a winged snow leopard is found on Tatarstan's coat of arms. A similar leopard is featured at the coat of arms of North Ossetia-Alania. The snow leopard award was given to Soviet mountaineers who scaled all five of the Soviet Union's 7000m peaks. In addition, the snow leopard is the symbol of the Girl Scout Association of Kyrgyzstan.
References: Wikipedia, Big Cats on line.