While some of you may know the snow leopard from the amazing chase sequence in the BBC Planet Earth series, most people think 'snow leopard' pertains to Apple's latest Operating System, or the brutal and ruthless villain, Tai Lung, from last year's smash hit Kung Fu Panda. Well, snow leopards are nothing akin to Operating Systems -- nor are they brutal and ruthless in any shape or form.
Snow leopards are found in twelve countries, where they inhabit some of the most remote mountain ranges of Central Asia. They are one of the most distinctive cats - stocky, covered in thick grey fur with large black rosettes, and they have small, rounded ears - an adaptation to minimize heat loss. Their tail which is almost as long as their body helps them balance as they scale impossible precipices that would make even the most experienced K2 climber shudder. On a freezing night at 16,000 feet, the tail is used protectively, wrapped around their face while sleeping, to keep out the biting cold. The snow leopard cannot roar, and with its camouflaged pelt and silent nature, it's no wonder locals refer to these majestic creatures as mountain ghosts -- elusive, rarely seen phantoms who leave frozen footprints in the snow as the only signs that they were ever there at all.
Sadly, the snow leopard is Endangered; their gorgeous coats are still in demand in certain countries and their bones are illegally consumed for traditional Asian medicine. With humans encroaching upon their habitat, they'll often prey on domestic livestock, where even the loss of just one sheep or goat can present a serious economic hardship, negatively impacting local livelihoods which results in retaliatory killings. But aggressive towards humans they're not -- one anecdotal report described a young child holding on to a goat for dear life, with a snow leopard tugging on the other end (the child won and the goat lived another day) -- and there has never been a report of a snow leopard attacking a human, ever. But as is the case with large predators, they make challenging neighbors for the people who share their home.
However, conservation solutions exist. Panthera, the world's leading wild cat conservation group, is working with the Snow Leopard Trust, employing digital trap cameras and GPS satellite collars to collect critical data about these elusive cats. We are learning basic information such as how far they travel, where they go, and what type of habitat they prefer so we can better understand how to protect them and reduce conflicts with humans. While a report just came out about the decline in snow leopards in Nepal, in another remote corner of their range in the South Gobi province of Mongolia, our team recently captured on video a female and her three cubs. We are working to ensure that these mountain ghosts remain in the wild, that they are not ethereal -- and are here to stay.