Animals: Snow leopards - "Spirit of the Mountains"

In parts of their homeland, snow leopards are called "Spirit of the Mountains" because they are rarely seen.

Animals: Snow leopards - "Spirit of the Mountains"

In parts of their homeland, snow leopards are called "Spirit of the Mountains" because they are rarely seen. Nepalese biologist Madhu Chetri says he has only seen one in the wild seven or eight times - even though he has been studying the animals for more than two decades. The shy, solitary animals with grey-white, dark-patterned fur live well camouflaged in rocky, snow-covered mountain regions in Asia. Researchers primarily use hair, feces and recordings from camera traps for their analyses.

The nimble climbers have already made it to the Cannes Film Festival - in the documentary "La panthere des neiges" (The Snow Leopard), in which nature photographer Vincent Munier and writer Sylvain Tesson patiently trek through icy mountain landscapes to find snow leopards - and hardly any get to see.

Snow leopards are on the red list

According to the environmental foundation WWF, there are still around 4,200 to 6,400 snow leopards that live in freedom in the high mountains of Central Asia and the Himalayas. They are listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. In Nepal, the country with the highest mountains in the world, their population is decreasing, according to the Nature Conservation Association of Germany (Nabu). There are only 350 to 500 snow leopards left there.

Conflicts with humans, among other things, are fatal to the animals: pasture areas often overlap with the snow leopards' hunting areas, as Nabu says. Attacks on livestock are the result. The shepherds often react by killing the big cats using poisoned meat as bait or traps.

problem for shepherds

In Nepal, snow leopards killed at least 1,193 livestock, mostly goats and sheep, between mid-2021 and 2022, figures from the local wildlife authority show. Such losses can threaten the existence of shepherds. Last November, 82 of a man's goats were killed in the Mustang district, the local newspaper Republica reported. The damage amounted to three million rupees - the equivalent of more than 20,000 euros.

The climate crisis is increasing the potential for conflict, says the head of the nature reserve in Nepal's Annapurna region, Rabin Chaudhary. Snow leopards live above the tree line - which is moving further and further higher towards the summit as warming occurs. According to the WWF, the habitat for the animals is shrinking significantly. The snow leopards sometimes move into populated areas, thus coming closer to people and their farm animals, which are particularly easy to hunt, as Chaudhary says.

Skeleton brings a lot of money on the black market

In addition, they would come into the environment of common leopards and tigers - and would be exposed to their diseases and an increased fight for habitat and prey. Finally, poachers also target the animals, as the regular confiscation of body parts or products from them shows. According to the WWF, a fur can fetch up to $500 on the black market, and a skeleton can fetch up to $10,000.

There is still far too little known about the lifestyle, behavior and feeding habits of snow leopards, says scientist Chetri. Population estimates were often based only on sample analyses. Accurate counts are logistically demanding and expensive in remote regions.

You can also see snow leopards in zoos in Germany. In the Wilhelma in Stuttgart, for example, a young animal was born last year - unexpectedly for the keepers, who had no longer expected offspring from the 13-year-old mother. According to the WWF, snow leopards have a life expectancy of up to twelve years in the wild.