Snow leopardRecently I had to return several bird specimens to the Ornithology and Mammalogy department at the Academy. This project afforded me an opportunity to go into the pelt and bird room. The room, essentially a large refrigerator, was a brisk 58 degrees and packed with all sorts of wonderful specimens. Birds of all kinds stood picturesque on shelves while pelts of lions, tigers, bears among other mammals lined the walls several feet deep.
Specimens were sorted into taxonomical groups with relation to each other. Some specimens were a century old if not older, including an elephant skin shot in Africa by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1908. As mammals are my greatest love in natural history, I was in awe of the great variety of specimens. One specimen in particular took my breath away. Buried below the pelts of tigers with their massive paws was the smaller and more elusive Uncia uncia better known as the Snow Leopard. The first thing that struck me about the pelt was the length of the tail. For balance on the slippery climes of mountainous central and South Asia, snow leopards use incredibly long tails for balancing while stalking their prey of mountain goats, wild sheep, and small mammals. They will traverse up and down perilous cliffs in pursuit of prey and do so with an extraordinary balance. Watching Planet Earth recently, I was enthralled watching live footage of an actual hunt on a cliff. The speed and agility of these animals is incredible.
It was studying the Snow Leopard that made me fall in love with the big cat family and set me on a course to learn about conservation. I had to give a report in fifth grade about the cat and I still can remember drawing the body out on the board to show that the tail was usually the same length as the cat's body. I was so nervous during the talk that my lips trembled giving me a horrible stutter through out. Yet, that was the first time I became really passionate about an animal and ultimately conservation. I remember thinking "This leopard could become extinct in my lifetime…"
This is still a very likely scenario, although they are now on the "Red List" of endangered species. There are only about 7,500 Snow Leopards in the wild and fewer than 700 in zoos around the world. This animal is a perfect example of an animal's needs and habitat battling against the needs of a local people and economy. Protection of the Snow Leopard includes research and tracking. It also includes education and empowering the villagers that share a habitat with them to protect them as well. Poaching of Snow Leopards has been one of the main causes for their demise. Historically they have been hunted for their thick fur and killed as a pest because in lean years they kill the goats and sheep of local villages. Conservation groups like the Snow Leopard Trust understand that conservation is not only about research but creating economical and educational opportunities for local people who live with these animals. I am hoping conservation endeavors will continue to protect animals living in the wild. It would be a shame if in my lifetime Snow Leopards were only noted as pelts hanging in museums like the Academy.