Winter Stroll

About a week ago I posted a clip of this video on Instagram but thought it was just too beautiful not to share in its entirety. It was taken in 2013 in Northern Ontario by YouTube user ReelEdgeProductions on a Sunday afternoon as they were BBQ’ing on their back deck. What a privilege to see these amazing cats causally taking a winter stroll through your backyard.

The Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) is a medium-sized cat characterized by its long ear tufts, flared facial ruff, and short, bobbed tail with a black tip, unusually large paws that act like snowshoes in very deep snow, thick fur and long legs, and its hind legs are longer than its front legs. Lynx are generally found in moist, boreal forests that have cold, snowy winters and a high density of their favorite prey: the snowshoe hare. The southern portion of their range historically extended into the US into the northern Rocky Mountains/Cascades, southern Rockies, Great Lakes states and the Northeast.

Lynx mate during the winter and the females give birth once a year. Lynx ARE NOT considered species at risk in Canada and sadly are killed for their fur pelts, which occurs in 10 of 12 range provinces and territories (Northwest Territories, Yukon Territory, Nunavut, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador). Lynx harvest is prohibited in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Lynx were extirpated from Prince Edward Island in the late 1800s.

In the US they are listed under Endangered Species Act and can no longer be legally trapped in the lower 48 states. However, they have not fully recovered from population declines, and remain at serious risk. Primary sources of mortality to Lynx are starvation, predation, and human-related causes, as well as habitat loss to Boreal forests (this includes logging, road-building and high traffic volume, housing developments, resource extraction such as oil drilling and mining, and winter recreation).

Climate Change is also a threat as the deep snow, that Lynx have an advantage over other predators in, becomes less predictable.

Ghost of the Mountain

Panthera uncia, or the Snow Leopard, is a gorgeous and rare cat that lives in the mountains of Central Asia. I have long been fascinated with these mysterious and other worldly cats who seem to exude a sense of intangible wisdom and calm, perhaps this is a direct result of having evolved to live in such a harsh and remote environment. The mysterious quality is well earned as they are very hard to photograph and study. In fact, most of the photos taken of Snow Leopards are done with strategically placed camera traps, making images like the one by wildlife photographer Steve Winter, extremely breathtaking and precious.

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One of the most elusive of the big cats & rarest photographed – Image Steve Winter

Snow Leopards are known for their mystical beauty and elusive nature, and because of this they have been called the Ghost of the Mountains.  Part of their allure is their fur, which is luxuriously beautiful and practical at keeping them perfectly warm and camouflaged  in the rugged and unforgiving landscape in which they live and hunt. While Snow Leopards are found in 12 countries approximately 60% of the cats habitat can primarily be found in China.

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The snow leopard has white, yellowish and smoky grey speckled fur with dark-grey to black spots and rosettes. Image – Snow Leopard Trust

As with all cats they have physical characteristics that suit their environment, and their features do more than present a pretty picture, they serve a purpose. The round short ears help reduce heat loss and the wide and short nasal cavity heat the chilled outside air before reaching the lungs. “In the Himalayas, they are usually found between 3,000 and 5,400 meters above sea level. In Mongolia and Russia, these cats are found at lower altitudes of 1000 meters. At the Snow Leopard’s typical elevation, the climate is cold and dry, and only grasses and small shrubs can grow on the steep mountain slopes.”

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Snow leopards prefer the broken terrain of cliffs, rocky outcrops, and ravines. Image –  Steve Tracy, Courtesy of the Snow Leopard Trust

Other physical features that make Snow Leopards suited for its extreme environment include: extra big paws that act like snow shoes; a long tail that is used for balance and also keeping warm on cold nights; short front limbs and long back limbs which are used to help the cat propel itself up to 30 feet at once and, very strong chest muscles to help it climb mountains for prey.

Since Snow Leopards are hard to study researchers have relied on camera trap technology which has helped them understand more about the cats than ever before. However, their ghost like presence has still made it impossible to determine exactly how many exist and, estimates have put this endangered cat at only 3,500 – 7,000 individuals. Snow Leopards are listed on CITES Appendix I which offers the highest level of protection and means all international trade that is primarily for commercial purposes is prohibited. They are also legally protected from hunting by national legislation across most of its 12 range states and, in 2009 Afghanistan gave the cats legal protection by listing the species on the country’s first Protected Species List.

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The Snow Leopard Trust has documented one cat who walked 27 miles in just one night.

While Snow Leopards tend to be ‘crepuscular’, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk their behavior has noted to be influenced by the presence of humans. It has been found that were there is less human population they are active in the daytime and when there are more people nearby their territory, they become ‘nocturnal’ or active at night.

The cats communicate over vast distances either by marking, which is done by scraping the ground, or spraying urine on ridges and cliffs along the mountains. Solitary animals, once mating season is over the male and female part ways leaving her to raise the cubs until they reach about 2 years old at which time the cubs will leave to look for their own territory. A Snow Leopards territory can be hundreds of square km and overlap but, researchers believe that the amount of space each cat needs may differ between the landscapes and availability of prey.

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Snow Leopards from the Zurich Zoo – Image Flickr

While Snow Leopards can purr, mew, hiss and growl they cannot roar instead, they are known to make a puffing sound called a ‘chuff’ just like Tigers. The ability to roar does not exist in Snow Leopards due to the physiology of their throat, or structure of the hyoid bone.  To hear what the chuffing sounds like check out this video of a Snow Leopard from Big Cat Rescue.

What is also important to note is that these cats are not aggressive towards humans and, there has never been a confirmed Snow Leopard attack on a human being. Instead they have a reputation for running away rather than defending themselves if disturbed. Like all cats, they may however become aggressive during an encounter between two males or if a female’s cubs are being threatened.

While Snow Leopards may not be the most photographed of the big cats, never before seen footage has been released in time to celebrate International Snow Leopard Day which is marked today October 23. The WWF has released photos and video to coincide with a report that highlights the fragile connections between Snow Leopards, People, Water And The Global Climate. They say that a third of the cats habitat is at risk from climate change.  Images in this video were taken in Nepal and Mongolia.

As with all our big cats human activity is a major threat to the survival of this species, this includes poaching for their fur, retaliatory killings for livestock loss, loss of habitat and prey, mining activities and lack of resources to protect the cats. If that wasn’t enough, climate change will now add another immediate threat to the survival of Snow Leopards. WWF-UK tells International Business Times that “The Himalayas region will face a major crisis if we choose to ignore climate change. Not only do we risk losing majestic species such as the snow leopard, but hundreds of millions of people who rely on water flowing from these mountains may be affected.”

The leading organization on these cats the Snow Leopard Trust, founded in 1981, is at the forefront working diligently to save them while offering ways for people to help Snow Leopards by either donating, volunteering, shopping or becoming a partner. They also have a wealth of resources about their work and research available online including their report on how Climate Change could speed up the Snow Leopards demise.

The Snow Leopard Trust has put together this wonderful two-part infographic fact sheet which can be shared and downloaded from their site, it is a great educational tool to inform others of this amazing cats plight and help them understand why they are worth saving.

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