Panthera uncia


Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family

Scientific Name: Panthera uncia
Species Authority: (Schreber, 1775)
Common Name/s:
English Snow Leopard, Ounce
French Once, Irbis, Léopard des neiges, Panthère des neiges
Spanish Leopardo Nival, Pantera de la Nieves
Felis uncia Schreiber, 1775
Uncia uncia (Schreber, 1775)
Taxonomic Notes: Placed in the genus Panthera according to genetic analysis (Johnson et al. 2006, Eizirik et al. submitted). It is most closely related to the Tiger Panthera tigris, having diverged over 2 million years ago (O'Brien and Johnson 2007), although the relative positions of these two species within Panthera have not yet been established with confidence (Eizirik et al. submitted). Two subspecies have been classically described (McCarthy et al. 2003), but genetic analysis of intraspecific variation in the Snow Leopard has not yet been done.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Endangered C1 ver 3.1
Year Published: 2008
Date Assessed: 2008-06-30
Assessor/s: Jackson, R., Mallon, D., McCarthy, T., Chundaway, R.A. & Habib, B.
Reviewer/s: Nowell, K., Breitenmoser-Wursten, C., Breitenmoser, U. (Cat Red List Authority) & Schipper, J. (Global Mammal Assessment Team)
Listed as Endangered under C1. Snow Leopards are suspected to have declined by at least 20% over the past two generations (16 years) due to habitat and prey base loss, and poaching and persecution. Losses to poaching were most severe in the former Russian republics in the 1990s (Koshkarev and Vyrypaev 2000, McCarthy et al. 2003, Theile 2003). While conditions have improved there (T. McCarthy pers. comm. 2008), poaching and illegal trade is likely to continue in large parts of snow leopard range given growing demand from China. Over-stocking of the fragile high-altitude grasslands with livestock is widespread throughout snow leopard range, leading to declines in the wild prey base, and an increase in retributive killing when snow leopards turn to livestock (McCarthy et al. 2003, Jackson et al. in press).

The global Snow Leopard population is estimated at 4,080-6,590 (McCarthy et al. 2003: Table II). IUCN Guidelines (IUCN 2006) define population as the number of mature individuals, defined as “individuals known, estimated or inferred to be capable of reproduction.” While in general this refers to all reproductive-age adults in the population, the Guidelines also “stress that the intention of the definition of mature individuals is to allow the estimate of the number of mature individuals to take account of all the factors that may make a taxon more vulnerable than otherwise might be expected.” Two factors which increase felid vulnerability to extinction are their low densities (relative to other mammals, including their prey species) and relatively low recruitment rates (where few animals raise offspring which survive to join the breeding population, which has been documented in a number of felid populations). Low densities means that relatively large areas are required for conservation of viable populations; it has long been recognized that many protected areas are too small to conserve viable snow leopard populations (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Jackson and Hunter 1997, McCarthy et al. 2003). Low recruitment rates also require larger populations and larger areas to conserve viable populations, as well as mortality reduction in non-protected areas to maintain population size through connectivity. The IUCN Guidelines advise that “mature individuals that will never produce new recruits should not be counted.” Low recruitment rates indicate that fewer adults than would be expected produce new recruits. Defining population size as the total estimated number of reproductive age adults in the taxon would also not take into account that many occur in subpopulations which are too small or too threatened for long-term viability. Instead, the number of mature individuals is defined as equivalent to the estimated effective population size.

Effective population size (Ne) is an estimator of the genetic size of the population, and is generally considered representative of the proportion of the total adult population (N) which reproduces itself through offspring which themselves survive and reproduce. Ne is usually smaller than N, and based on four felid demographic studies, it is roughly estimated at 50% (Nowell et al. 2007). The global snow leopard effective population size is suspected to be fewer than 2,500 (50% of the total population, or 2,040-3,295).
2002 Endangered
1996 Endangered
1996 Endangered (Baillie and Groombridge 1996)
1994 Endangered (Groombridge 1994)
1990 Endangered (IUCN 1990)
1988 Endangered (IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
1986 Endangered (IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:

The Snow Leopard is restricted to the high mountains of Central Asia, with core areas including the Altai, Tian Shan, Kun Lun, Pamir, Hindu Kush, Karakorum and Himalayan ranges. (McCarthy et al. 2003). Ecological regions were defined in a workshop as Altai-Sayan, Trans-Altai Alashan Gobi, Tian Shan, Pamir, Hindu-Kush, Karakorum, Himalayas, Hengduan Mountains, and Tibetan Plateau (Williams 2008).

Based on elevational analysis, Hunter and Jackson (1997) estimated potential range at over 3 million km, with much of this in Mongolia and the Tibetan plateau of China, although it is unclear to what extent snow leopards use much of the flatter parts of the plateau (R. Jackson pers. comm. 2008). There was evidence of snow leopard occupation in 1.83 million km, and only about 550,000 km was considered to be good habitat (Hunter and Jackson 1997, McCarthy et al. 2003). Williams (2006) used historical data to improve mapping of potential range, but there remains a significant lack lack of information about current snow leopard status across much of its known and potential distribution.

In an attempt to improve knowledge of Snow Leopard distribution and status, a conservation planning conference held in Beijing in March 2008 brought together experts from 11 of the 12 range countries. The conference was able to map specific and local knowledge about snow leopard range and determine Snow Leopard Conservation Units, areas which are the most important for conserving Snow Leopards over the long-term. The process highlighted areas where knowledge of Snow Leopard status is strong and where it is lacking, and resulting maps now provide biologists and conservationists with a more strategic approach to Snow Leopard conservation and research (Williams 2008).

Afghanistan; Bhutan; China (Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Tibet [or Xizang], Xinjiang, Yunnan - Regionally Extinct); India (Himachal Pradesh, Jammu-Kashmir, Sikkim, Uttaranchal); Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; Mongolia; Nepal; Pakistan; Russian Federation; Tajikistan; Uzbekistan
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population: The Snow Leopard Survival Strategy (McCarthy et al. 2003, Table II) compiled national snow leopard population estimates, updating the work of Fox (1994). Many of the estimates are acknowledged to be rough and out of date, but the total estimated population is 4,080-6,590, as follows:

Afghanistan: 100-200?
Bhutan: 100-200?
China: 2,000-2,500
India: 200-600
Kazakhstan: 180-200
Kyrgyzstan: 150-500
Mongolia: 500-1,000
Nepal: 300-500
Pakistan: 200-420
Russia: 150-200
Tajikistan: 180-220
Uzbekistan: 20-50
Population Trend: Decreasing

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology: Snow Leopards are closely associated with the alpine and sub-alpine ecological zones, favoring steep terrain well broken by cliffs, ridges, gullies, and rocky outcrops (McCarthy et al. 2003). However, in Mongolia and Tibet they may occupy relatively flat or rolling terrain as long as there is sufficient hiding cover (Jackson et al. in press) In the Sayan mountains of Russia and parts of the Tien Shan range of China, they are found in open coniferous forest, but usually avoid dense forest. They generally occur at elevations of 3,000-4,500 m, except for at their northern range limit, where they are found at lower elevations (900-2,500 m) (McCarthy et al. 2003). Low temperatures and high aridity makes its habitat among the least productive rangeland systems in terms of graminoid biomass, with prey populations consequently occurring at relatively low densities (Jackson et al. in press).

The cat’s principal natural prey species are bharal or blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) and ibex (Capra sibirica) whose distribution coincides closely with snow leopard range. Snow leopards also prey on marmot (Marmota spp), pika (Ochotona spp.), hares (Lepus spp.), small rodents, and game birds. Considerable predation is reported on domestic livestock. Annual prey requirements are estimated at 20 to 30 adult blue sheep, with radio-tracking data indicating such a kill every 10 to 15 days. A solitary leopard may remain on a kill for up to a week (Jackson et al. in press)

Snow Leopard home ranges overlap widely between the sexes, and are reported to vary from 10 to 40 km² in relatively productive habitat in Nepal (Jackson and Ahlborn 1989). By comparison, home ranges are considerably larger (140 km² or greater) in Mongolia, where terrain is relatively open and ungulate prey densities lower (McCarthy et al. 2005). Densities range from 0.1 to 10 or more individuals per 100 km² (Jackson et al. in press).
Systems: Terrestrial

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): Major threats to the Snow Leopard include prey base depletion, illegal trade, conflict with local people, and lack of conservation capacity, policy and awareness. The Snow Leopard Survival Strategy assessed primary threats by region as follows (McCarthy et al. 2003):

Himalayan region (Tibetan Plateau and other southern China, India, Nepal and Bhutan): reduction of natural prey due to competition with livestock, killing of snow leopards in retribution for livestock depredation, lack of trans-boundary cooperation, military activity, and human population growth or poverty.

Karakhorum and Hindu Kush (Afghanistan, Pakistan and southwest China): habitat degradation and fragmentation, reduction of natural prey due to illegal hunting, killing of snow leopards in retribution for livestock depredation, lack of effective law enforcement, lack of institutional capacity and awareness among local people and policy makers, and human population growth or poverty.

Commonwealth of Independent States and western China (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Xinjiang province of China): reduction of natural prey due to illegal hunting, poaching snow leopards for trade in hides or bones, lack of trans-boundary cooperation, military activity, and human population growth or poverty.

Northern range (Russia, Mongolia, and Altai and Tien Shan ranges of China): poaching snow leopards for trade in hides or bones, lack of appropriate policy and effective enforcement, lack of institutional capacity and awareness among local people and policy makers, and human population growth or poverty.

Snow Leopard habitat undergoes extensive agro-pastoral land use, both within and outside protected areas. Conflict with local communities over livestock depredation is amongst the most important threats to the species its range.
The inherently low wild ungulate density in the snow leopard’s range, owing to relatively low primary productivity, is further exacerbated by prey declines due to hunting for meat and competition with livestock. A declining prey base reduces habitat quality for snow leopards and escalates livestock depredation. Competition with livestock for forage is one of the most widespread causes of prey base decline (Jackson et al. in press); reduction of the wild prey base because of hunting by people is also significant in parts of snow leopard range (McCarthy et al. 2003).

Snow Leopards are capable of killing all domestic animals except perhaps for fully-grown male yak. Although herders take steps to reduce the risk of depredation (Jackson et al. in press), livestock populations are a locally abundant food source for snow leopards and make up to 58% of their diet in some areas. The relative abundance of livestock vs. wild prey is a reasonable predictor of the level of livestock depredation by snow leopards (Bagchi and Mishra 2006).

Snow Leopards are killed in retribution for livestock depredation, but also for commercial purposes, and poaching for illegal trade represents a significant threat. Pelts appear to be the main snow leopard produce in demand, but there is also evidence of demand for live animals for zoos and circuses. Other body parts found in trade include bones (used especially in Chinese medicine as a substitute for tiger bone), as well as claws, meat and sexual organs of male cats (Theile 2003). Illegal trade increased in the 1990s in the economically depressed, newly independent Central Asian states that emerged from dissolution of the Soviet Union (Koshkarev 1994, Koshkarev and Vyrypaev 2000). Illegal trade appears to be increasing rapidly with China’s growing economic power, for example, in neighbouring Mongolia (Wingard and Zahler 2006). In Afghanistan, a new market has emerged which is difficult to police due to ongoing military conflict (Habibi 2004).

The general lack of awareness at both local and national levels for the need to conserve wildlife and especially predators, further hinders conservation efforts. Up to a third of the snow leopard’s range falls along politically sensitive international borders, complicating trans-boundary conservation initiatives. Military conflict is taking place across much of the snow leopard's range, causing immense damage to wildlife through direct loss of species and destruction of habitat, losses to landmines, the demands of displaced peoples for food and fuel, and the encouragement of trade in wildlife (Jackson et al. in press).

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: Included on CITES Appendix I (as Uncia uncia). Is legally protected from hunting by national legislation across most of its 12 range states (McCarthy et al. 2003). Afghanistan has recently afforded the Snow Leopard legal protection, after listing the species on the country’s first Protected Species List in 2009. This bans all hunting and trading of Snow Leopards within Afghanistan.

The Snow Leopard Survival Strategy (McCarthy et al. 2003) recommends the following conservation measures:

  • Grazing management and livestock husbandry: promote livestock grazing practices that reduce impacts on native wildlife, especially large ungulates; promote husbandry practices which reduce livestock vulnerability to snow leopard predation and improve efficiency and yield;
  • Financial incentives for communities to conserve snow leopards (Mishra et al. 2003): including wildlife-based ecotourism (e.g., snow leopard treks: Snow Leopard Conservancy 2008), cottage industry (e.g., village-made handicrafts: Snow Leopard Trust 2008), and well-structured ungulate trophy hunting programs;
  • Improve conservation education and awareness among a variety of stakeholders, from local communities to national governments to an international audience.

Theile (2003) recommends the following measures to reduce the threats of poaching and illegal trade:

  • Strengthen national legislation and conservation policies by filling gaps in range state legislation to prohibit the hunting, killing, possession, sale and trade of Snow Leopards, including all body parts and derivatives, at local regional and national levels; offering legal assistance and advice to governments; mete out sufficient deterrent penalties to law-breakers, and consider "whistle-blower" policies to provide incentives to report illegal activities;
  • Strengthen law enforcement capacity by tightening controls along known trade routes, and at markets and border crossings; improve inter-agency cooperation and intelligence sharing; establish anti-poaching teams to detect and deter illegal killing; carry out regular monitoring of major markets and trade centres; and improve technical capacity through training;
  • Strengthen international cooperation to enforce trade bans through adherence to CITES resolutions (e.g., Res. Conf. 12.5) (Nowell 2007).

The Snow Leopard Network (SLN 2008) unites individuals and organizations (including the International Snow Leopard Trust, the Snow Leopard Conservancy, and others) for coordination, cooperation and information sharing. An International Conference on Range-wide Conservation Planning for Snow Leopards held in Beijing, China in March 2008 identified important areas for Snow Leopard conservation (Snow Leopard Conservation Units) and provided a framework for the development of national action plans. Four countries have existing national action plans (Mongolia, Pakistan, Nepal and Russia: McCarthy et al. 2003), and India has developed Project Snow Leopard, a national governmental program for Snow Leopard conservation, although it has not been adequately funded (Anonymous 2007).

Bibliography [top]

Anonymous. 2007. Snow Leopard Project Stalled: Ambitious Plans to Conserve Himalayan Snow Leopards Face Fund Crunch. Sikkim Express.

Bagchi, S. and Mishra, C. 2006. Living with large carnivores: predation on livestock by the snow leopard (Uncia uncia). Journal of Zoology (London) 268: 217.

Eizirik, E., Johnson, W. E. and O'Brien, S. J. Submitted. Molecular systematics and revised classification of the family Felidae (Mammalia, Carnivora). Journal of Mammalogy.

Fox, J. L. 1994. Snow leopard conservation in the wild - a comprehensive perspective on a low density and highly fragmented population. In: J. L. Fox and J. Z. Du (eds), Proceedings of the seventh International Snow Leopard Symposium, International Snow Leopard Trust, Seattle, WA, USA.

Habibi, K. 2003. Mammals of Afghanistan. Zoo Outreach Organisation/ USFWS, Coimbatore, India.

IUCN. 2008. 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Available at: (Accessed: 5 October 2008).

Jackson, R. and Ahlborn, G. G. 1989. Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) in Nepal - Home range and movements. National Geographic Research 5(2): 161-175.

Jackson, R. and Hunter, D. O. 1997. Snow Leopard Survey and Conservation Hand Book. International Snow Leopard Trust and U.S. Geological Survey, Science Centre, Seattle, Washington and Fort Collins, Colorado, US.

Jackson, R., Mishra, C., McCarthy, T. M. and Ale, S. B. In press. Snow leopards, conflict and conservation. In: D. W. Macdonald and A. Loveridge (eds), Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Johnson, W. E., Eizirik, E., Pecon-Slattery, J., Murphy, W. J., Antunes, A., Teeling, E. and O'Brien, S. J. 2006. The late miocene radiation of modern felidae: A genetic assesstment. Science 311: 73-77.

Koshkarev, E. P. 1994. Snow leopard poaching in Central Asia. Cat News 21: 18.

Koshkarev, E. P. and Vyrypaev, V. 2000. he snow leopard after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Cat News 32: 9-11.

McCarthy, T. M., Allen, P. M., Fox, J., Chapron, G., Jackson, R. M., Mishra, C. and Theile, S. 2003. Snow leopard survival strategy. ISLT, Seattle.

McCarthy, T. M., Fuller, T. K. and Munkhtsog, B. 2005. Movements and activities of snow leopards in Southwestern Mongolia. Biological Conservation 124: 527-537.

Mishra, C., Allen, P., Mccarthy, T., Madhusudan, M. D., Bayarjargal, A. and Prins, H. H. T. 2003. The role of incentive programs in conserving the snow leopard. Conservation Biology 17(6): 1512.

Nowell,K. 2007. Asian big cat conservation and trade control in selected range States: evaluating implementation and effectiveness of CITES Recommendations. TRAFFIC International, Cambrudge, UK.

Nowell, K. and Jackson, P. 1996. Wild Cats. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

Nowell, K., Schipper, J. and Hoffmann, M. 2007. Re-evaluation of the Felidae of the 2008 IUCN Red List. Cat News 47: 5.

O'Brien, S. J. and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American July: 68-75.

Snow Leopard Conservancy. 2008. Snow leopard treks. Available at:

Snow Leopard Network. 2008. Snow Leopard Network. Available at:

Snow Leopard Trust. 2008. Snow Leopard Enterprises. Available at:

Theile, S. 2003. Fading footprints: the killing and trade of snow leopards. TRAFFIC International, Cambridge, UK.

Williams, N. 2008. International Conference on Range-wide Conservation Planning for Snow Leopards: Saving the Species Across its Range. Cat News 48: 33.

Williams, P. A. 2006. A GIS assessment of snow leopard potential range and protected areas throughout inner Asia; and the development of an internet mapping service for snow leopard protection. M.A. Thesis, University of Montana.

Wingard, J. R. and Zahler, P. 2006. Silent Steppe: The Illegal Wildlife Trade Crisis in Mongolia. Mongolia Discussion Papers. World Bank, East Asia and Pacific Environment and Social Development Department, Washington, DC, USA.

Citation: Jackson, R., Mallon, D., McCarthy, T., Chundaway, R.A. & Habib, B. 2008. Panthera uncia. In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. <>. Downloaded on 19 April 2014.
Disclaimer: To make use of this information, please check the <Terms of Use>.
Feedback: If you see any errors or have any questions or suggestions on what is shown on this page, please fill in the feedback form so that we can correct or extend the information provided