Snow Leopards were listed as an internationally endangered species in 1974 and populations are continuing to decline today. There may be as few as 3500 Snow Leopards left in the 12 countries where they are still found. These cats are very rarely seen because they inhabit harsh terrain with an extreme climate and are distributed across a range of more than 1 million square kilometers.
Humans are responsible for the Snow Leopard’s decline: Poachers hunt them for their spotted pelts, their body parts are used for traditional medicine and the leopards come into conflict with local farmers. The human-leopard interaction is driven by an increase in human settlement in the remote areas of Central Asia that were once uninhabited or only sparsely populated.
A global breeding program has been established to create an insurance population of Snow Leopards in zoos, in case of catastrophic declines in the wild. The program is targeted towards ensuring strong genetic variation so that if they are ever released into the wild, the leopards will produce healthy cubs and sustainable populations.
Taronga Zoo is involved in the breeding program for Snow Leopards in the Australasian region. Snow Leopards at the Zoo also play a vital role in helping people to understand how vulnerable their wild counterparts are, and encourage a commitment to protect Snow Leopards throughout Asia.
The first pair of Snow Leopards arrived at Taronga Zoo in February 1990 from two different zoos in the USA. In 2005 two cubs were born, a male and a female. With wild numbers so low, such zoo-based programs are vital to the species’ survival.