Hiding in Plain Sight
As daylight gives way to icy evening shadows, a snow leopard (Panthera uncia) rises from its perch and bounds across a rocky crag in India’s Hemis National Park. These solitary predators are well-adapted to their often-snowy, vertical, and barren habitat. Large paws keep them from sinking into deep snow, while long tails—nearly equal to the animal’s body length—help them balance along narrow ledges and ridge-tops. The cat’s dense fur keeps it warm in freezing temperatures, and the pattern of its coat breaks up the contours of its body, enabling it to blend almost perfectly into the landscape as it silently stalks its prey.
Although the snow leopard’s range stretches across the high mountains of much of Central Asia—from Afghanistan and northern India to Mongolia and China—the species’ numbers hover between just 4,000 and 6,500 individuals. As top predators in one of the harshest and least-productive rangeland habitats in the world, the cats are naturally rare. Their primary natural prey species, ibex (Capra sibirica) and blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), are simply not numerous enough to support large populations of the large cats.
Human encroachment has made an already-challenging environment even more so. Threats to snow leopards include poaching—of the cats and their prey—and reduction in prey numbers due to competition with livestock. While some leopards have taken to supplementing their diets with sheep and goats, this has only increased the number of cats killed by local herders trying to protect their flocks. The multibillion-dollar cashmere industry has recently increased these pressures, as high prices for the prized wool encourages herders to increase livestock production. In an effort to protect the cats from this growing list of threats, governments of the twelve countries included in the species’ range have pledged to secure at least 20 populations of breeding-age snow leopards by 2020.
Hemis National Park, Ladakh, India
Wim van den Heever
Wim van den Heever has been interested in both photography and nature for as long as he can remember. Raised in a family where photography was more a lifestyle than a hobby, he had many opportunities while growing up to visit Southern Africa's Game Parks. He now travels the world to capture images of extraordinary wildlife and natural phenomena, and hopes that his photos serve as a reminder not only of the beauty of nature itself, but also the threats it faces.
Katie Jewett is a science writer at the California Academy of Sciences, where she loves learning something new about our planet every day. Previously, she spent winters in the Colorado Rockies and summers living and working on the water.