What do snow leopards eat?

If a person hiking in snow leopard habitat comes upon a kill site and their first thought is, “OMG, I can’t wait to find out who did this!”, they clearly are part of our Snow Leopard Trust team.

Our colleague just returned from a trip to our long-term ecological study area in Mongolia. She recounted the fascinating experience of finding a snow leopard kill site with the field team. After a little detective work, they determined that Presnel, one of our collared female snow leopards, had killed an argali which she shared with her three cubs. 

Argali are the largest of the wild sheep and a common prey species for snow leopards. This experience was another reminder of the incredible hunting prowess of these relatively small big cats. Our scientists estimate that this argali may have weighed around 350 pounds (160 kg). We know from our recent collaring of Presnel that her weight is approximately 80 pounds (35 kg). That’s a pretty impressive feat for a cat who weighs three times less than her prey. In the first photo above, Senior Scientist Dr. Örjan Johansson is counting the rings on the horns to get an idea of the argali’s age. He estimated that this one was at least ten years old.  

Snow leopards can and do sometimes take down even larger prey, such as domestic horses and camels. This is why our long-term partnerships with local and indigenous communities living in snow leopard habitat are so important. Together, we’re co-creating solutions to help protect their livestock, conserve key prey species and foster coexistence with snow leopards.

So what do snow leopards typically eat? It varies by location, but the most common prey are wild sheep and goats.

  • Key prey species for snow leopards are the blue sheep (also known as bharal), the Siberian ibex and Himalayan tahr, and the previously mentioned argali. Wild prey availability is the most critical factor in determining if an area can be suitable for snow leopards.
  • These two charts indicate there is a difference in prey selection by female and male snow leopards. As you can see, our previous study recorded that the 9 collared females we followed did not kill domestic horses, while the males did. It is also likely that females with cubs may generally have a higher kill rate compared to males, given their greater collective needs for food. Our research team is trying to understand this better.
  • Snow leopards may take 3 or 4 days to consume a large prey animal. During that time, the snow leopard remains near the kill site to defend the meal from scavengers like vultures and ravens, eating every few hours until the carcass is bare. On average, single snow leopards hunt a large animal every 8 days whereas females with cubs likely hunt more often.
  • Snow leopards have evolved to primarily eat large-bodied animals. But as opportunistic predators,  they will also kill and eat smaller animals, such as marmots, as this research camera photo shows.

In some areas, musk deer, civets, hares, pika, and game birds such as chukkar and snowcock form a part of the diet of snow leopards. We also have evidence that some Gobi snow leopards have been known to eat goitered gazelles.

Much of the snow leopard’s range overlaps with domestic livestock, sometimes leading to depredation and subsequent conflict with people who depend upon these herds for their livelihood. Research indicates that snow leopards prefer wild prey over livestock but sometimes attack and kill goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, camels, cattle and young yaks. Interestingly, our radio-collaring data show that adult males kill more livestock compared to younger males and adult females.

Snow Leopard Trust conservation programs aim to promote the welfare of local communities and help build resilience so they can withstand numerous threats – from depredation to disease outbreaks to the impacts of climate change. The future of this endangered species depends upon these and other initiatives that promote coexistence and wild prey abundance across snow leopard habitat.

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