Elusive Snow Leopard Seen in Rare Photos

Ben Harder
National Geographic News
June 14, 2002
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The snow leopard, which roams the craggy, snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, is so elusive that it verges on legendary.

In parts of the Himalaya, the big cats have a near-mythical status comparable with the yeti, or abominable snowman. The fascination was heightened even further after Peter Matthiessen recounted his 1973 search for the magnificent creature in The Snow Leopard.

Now, scientists have captured the mysterious animals on film using novel remote camera technology.

The rare photos of the big cat in its native habitat were released today under a project undertaken by the Royal Geographic Society and supported by several other groups.

It was the best attempt to photograph them in this way to date, said Ashley Spearing, a researcher who led the expedition that tracked down the animals and caught them in action high in the Trans-Himalaya region of India. "It's also very encouraging that we now have a really powerful tool to study them," he added.

The project organizers think the experimental filming technique could help researchers determine the size of populations in the wild, thereby aiding conservation efforts.

It's been estimated that no more than 7,000 snow leopards exist in their 2.3-million-square kilometer range in Central Asia, and it's thought that this number is declining rapidly. Getting more accurate estimates has been difficult because the animals are so difficult to find and track.

Their habitat is shrinking, and only 6 percent are believed to reside in protected areas.

According to experts at the Royal Geographical Society, Himalayan herders often kill snow leopards when they attempt to attack livestock in the dark of night. The big cats are also hunted for their thick, white coats and their bones, which are sought as a substitute for tiger bones in some Chinese folk medicines.

Spearing and others hope to conduct further research in the region. One aim is to learn whether the density of the markers snow leopards leave in their habitat—scrapes, pug marks, scats, and scent sprays—can serve to indicate changes in the size of snow leopard populations.

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