The snow leopard has captured the interest of wildlife biologists, conservationists and the communities around northern and central Asia’s high mountains for centuries. This big cat has adapted to thrive in one of the world’s tallest mountainous regions, the Himalayas.

The shy and solitary snow leopard is an elusive creature. Field biologist George Schaller took the first photograph of the species in its natural habitat in 1971 in Nepal’s Himalayan Mountains. Since then, wildlife biologists and conservationists have utilized new monitoring techniques that have helped us understand how these animals survive in the wild, bringing the magic of this big cat to the rest of the world.

Seeing a snow leopard in the wild is one of the most coveted wildlife experiences on Earth. These cats reign across the Himalayas, living in alpine and subalpine terrain that spans 12 countries in northern and central Asia, including India, Mongolia, Afghanistan and Bhutan. According to the Snow Leopard Trust, the current population of wild snow leopards is estimated to be between 3,900 and 6,400.

Fast Facts About Snow Leopards:

  1. Snow leopards don’t produce a roar like other big cats; instead, they mew, hiss and make a non-aggressive puffing sound called a “chuff.”
  2. Snow leopards weigh anywhere from 60 to 120 pounds and can grow up to 5 feet long (excluding their tails).
  3. Snow leopards can leap up to 50 feet—which comes in handy when traversing their high, rocky habitat!
Snow leopard walks among boulders in Ladakh, India

© Perry Dollar

Big Cat Conservation

More than 70% of snow leopard habitat remains unexplored. In 2021, World Wildlife Fund released 100 Years of Snow Leopard Research, a report that covers the current state of snow leopard research and conservation efforts across the cat’s 12 home countries. The report recognizes the historical challenges of tracking and studying snow leopards in their natural habitat. The range for this species is large, remote and largely inaccessible during certain times of the year. Rough terrain, hostile weather and imperfect data analysis all present challenges to researchers.

Today, scientists and biologists use camera traps and satellite collars to better understand the behavior and range of snow leopards. Camera traps use motion sensor technology to record images of snow leopards. This helps scientists track movement, population numbers and the ratio of males, females and cubs across various regions. More in-depth techniques include satellite collaring snow leopards. Satellite GPS collars periodically transmit the location of the animals, providing invaluable information on snow leopards’ habitats, spatial behaviors and movements across borders.

World Wildlife Fund and Nat Hab are invested in filling the research gaps with new science and techniques that allow for non-invasive data collection. This field of research is even more vital as climate change, habitat loss and poaching threaten these felines. Experts warn that our warming climate may diminish up to 30% of snow leopards’ traditional terrain. As apex predators, the health of wild snow leopard populations is an indicator of the health of their entire ecosystem.

Snow leopard among boulders in the Himalayas

© Surya Ramachandran

Snow Leopard: Ghost of the Mountains

But stewardship and conservation won’t be successful through science alone. Community knowledge, citizen scientists and frontline park staff are all essential for expanding local interest and ability to protect the snow leopard. For centuries, communities adjacent to the snow leopard’s natural high-altitude habitats referred to the animal as the “ghost of the mountains” because they’re so rarely seen. Their presence, however, is still felt by many local communities high up in the Himalayas.

In areas like Dolpa, Nepal, food and water resources are scarce, and communities depend on raising cattle to survive. Therefore, when subsistence farmers lose livestock due to snow leopard predation, the impacts can be widely felt. Increased conflict results in more stress and strain on local resources. This is a reality that continues to affect stakeholders’ efforts to build the relationships needed to invest in snow leopards and local communities.

Rishi Kumar Sharma, WWF’s global snow leopard leader and lead author of 100 Years of Snow Leopard Research, says, “Ecological research around snow leopards has grown, but we need to also include and better understand the local communities that share space with snow leopards and who can greatly contribute to conservation interventions.” Long-term conservation and sustainability require collaborative partnerships among conservation organizations, local communities, travelers and governments. New conservation interventions include efforts to ensure local communities have technology such as predator-proof livestock pens and more diverse livelihood opportunities.

Photographers in the snow leopards habitat in the Himalayas

© Surya Ramachandran

Explore the Indian Himalayas’ Alpine Heights on a Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Cats

Sustainable tourism has become a reputable avenue for conservation travelers, explorers and wildlife enthusiasts to directly support snow leopards and the communities that have stewarded the land for centuries. Responsible nature tourism is part of the solution, and as conservation travelers, the investment we make to view Ladakh’s snow leopards benefits local communities. Sustainable travel creates an incentive to protect the wild creatures with which people share the land.

For those who want to embark on an adventure across the world’s highest mountains, Nat Hab’s journey to the Land of the Snow Leopard is the conservation-focused wildlife expedition for you! One of the best places for spotting snow leopards in India, the district of Ladakh sits at the border of Tibet. Approximately 200 or so reside here. These landscapes provide travelers with the best and most exclusive opportunity to see and possibly photograph a snow leopard undisturbed in its natural habitat—a rare, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Organizations like World Wildlife Fund and the Snow Leopard Trust have been working with locals, conservationists and governments to support snow leopard conservation efforts, which ultimately support the health of the entire Himalayans ecosystem. Spread the word and share why you care about snow leopards!