The snow leopard (Uncia uncia) – one of the world’s most elusive and enigmatic of creatures – has its main stronghold in Afghanistan along the Wakhan Corridor in the northern province of Badakhshan and at the eastern Afghanistan/Pakistan border in the province of Nuristan. These two areas, between 3,000 and 5,000 m in elevation, form just a fraction of the snow leopard’s vast global range that extends through 12 different countries covering approximately 2 million square kilometers.
Total global population numbers of between 3,500 and 7,000 individuals are rough estimates at best because snow leopards are notoriously difficult animals to study or even see in the wild, having the perfect camouflage for alpine living with their distinctive smoky-gray fur and dark rosette patterning. Other adaptations for life in the high-altitude, sub-zero temperature zones include a long flexible tail for balancing on rocky terrain and for wrapping around the body to retain heat, large paws for distributing their weight evenly while padding through thick snow, short forelimbs and long hindlimbs for leaping several meters at a time, and an enlarged nasal cavity to ease breathing at higher elevations.
Despite such specialization to their unique and unforgiving environment, snow leopard numbers have plummeted across their range in the last five decades, leaving the species on the brink of extinction. Heavy poaching to fuel the illegal trade in snow leopard furs and the traditional Chinese medicine market in their bones has been their most significant threat, and the black market trade in their parts is certainly still thriving.
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