The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is a carnivorous hunter admired for its striking coat of white, yellow, or grey fur with black rosettes. Snow leopards live mainly in the alpine and subalpine mountain regions of Central Asia and Eurasia. In addition to being stealthy predators, they are considered one of the ten largest cats in the world. So what do snow leopards eat in the mountains, even in harsh conditions? You might be surprised by the meals these big cats savor at elevations anywhere from 3,000-18,000 feet.
Let’s examine what snow leopards eat, how they hunt, and which animals the snow leopard competes with for food in their habitat.
What Do Snow Leopards Eat?
Snow leopards eat Himalayan blue sheep (bharal), argali sheep, boar, deer, and wild mountain goats (or goat-like mammals) such as ibex, markhor, and tahr. Snow leopards are carnivores, but they sometimes nibble on wild grasses and other vegetation.
A snow leopard prefers to hunt animals in the weight range of roughly 80 to 170 pounds, or up to three times its own weight. That’s probably because it gets a lot more food from killing a blue sheep than it does from a smaller animal like the marmot. A blue sheep can keep an individual snow leopard satisfied for up to two weeks! Nonetheless, snow leopards hunt smaller prey, and the marmot is a favorite snack. They also eat hare, mice, squirrels, and vole.
As with any wild predator searching for food, snow leopards sometimes find their way onto ranches or herding lands to prey on domestic livestock. In addition to sheep and goats, they eat cows, horses, llamas, and yaks if the animals are a manageable size for the cat to kill.
When prey is hard to find, snow leopards can survive for a short time on the fat stored in their very thick tails.
Here’s a list of common animals that snow leopards eat:
- Blue sheep (called Bharal)
How Much Does a Snow Leopard Eat?
According to Snow Leopard Conservancy founder Dr. Rodney Jackson, an average snow leopard observed in India’s Hemis National Park ate the following animals in 12 months:
- 1 domestic sheep
- 5 blue sheep
- 5 domestic goats
- 9 Tibetan woolly hares
- 15 birds
- 25 marmots
After killing an animal the size of a sheep or goat, snow leopards might take up to four days to finish eating it. Because of how long they can feed on one medium-sized animal, it might be more than a week before they need to hunt again.
How Do Snow Leopards Hunt?
As opportunistic hunters looking for the quickest kill, snow leopards tend to attack animals requiring only a short chase to catch. These powerful cats have large, wide paws for hunting easily on snow and can leap onto prey from distances up to 50 feet away.
Snow leopards are known for sneaking up behind prey from the tops of cliffs until they are close enough to pounce. Then, whether hunting through rocky terrain or tall field grasses, they tackle the animal and usually kill it by biting its neck.
Conservationists regard the snow leopard as essential to ecosystem balance in the Himalayas due to how many marmots they eat. Marmot populations could quickly get out of control across this vast region spanning many countries including China, India, and Nepal. Vegetation along the alpine landscape benefits from marmot burrowing, but too many marmots would destroy Himalayan meadows. The snow leopard’s hunting practices keep this and other animal populations (like goats and sheep) in check.
Considered antisocial, the snow leopard typically hunts alone at dusk or dawn. In addition, snow leopards are rarely ever seen in packs, so the food from their kill probably won’t be shared unless there are cubs to feed.
What Do Baby Snow Leopards Eat?
Snow leopard cubs nurse from their mothers for the first two months after birth. The cub’s diet then expands to blue sheep, ibex, and other animals their mother provides.
When nearly two years old, snow leopard cubs will have learned to hunt and strike out on their own to catch prey. Once it reaches this stage, a cub becomes as solitary as its parents and might never see them again.
Female snow leopards begin having babies of their own at two or three years old. Most snow leopards mate in winter and give birth around June or July.
Who Competes With Snow Leopards for Food?
Snow leopards eat many of the same foods hunted by wolves living in the same area. So, competition for ideal prey between leopards and wolves can be fierce, especially when conditions are bleak across the jagged terrain of the Himalayan mountains.
Himalayan wolves often prefer gazelle or deer over a meal of blue sheep. They also prey on ibex and yak, plus the smaller animals snow leopards eat like hare and marmot.
Other predators sharing hunting grounds with snow leopards include the bear, fox, jackal, and lynx.
As more humans move into their natural habitat and hunt for the same food, the diets of snow leopards and wolves become more dependent on livestock when the availability of wild prey decreases. As a result, humans kill more predators to protect their property, contributing to the at-risk status of snow leopard populations.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Abeselom Zerit/Shutterstock.com
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