In the large group of felids there are two clearly differentiated subfamilies. The first is that of the felines, a subfamily that includes 13 genera and more than 30 species, including cats, lynxes, pumas and cheetahs. They are relatively small in size and do not have the ability to roar.
The second is the pantherine subfamily , the large roaring felids, which includes only seven species: the tiger, the lion, the jaguar, the leopard, two species of clouded leopard, and the snow leopard , also called irbis ( Panthera uncia ), the only exception to the roar rule.
Since it cannot roar, it was initially classified as a feline —in the cat group—; however, comparative anatomy first and genetics later, provided evidence that the correct group to which it belongs is the pantherines. Although it does not roar, it does have the complex speech apparatus typical of large felids, absent in cats, and its limitation is reduced to the vocal cords.
An irbis weighs between 20 and 60 kilos; however, and despite being smaller than other large cats, it is capable of hunting large prey, even several times larger than itself, such as the Siberian ibex , which sometimes reaches 130 kilos in weight. Other smaller ruminants, such as the Himalayan blue goat, the argali or the markhor, complete their diet. Exceptionally, it can feed on small prey, such as hares, pikas or marmots.
The snow leopard lives in the Himalayas , between 3,000 and 5,800 meters above sea level. This region, with an extreme climate of very low temperature and high aridity, is very unproductive, so the density of prey is low; it is estimated that between one and ten per square kilometer. One of the main determining and limiting features in the abundance of irbis is, in fact, the scarcity of prey. This requires territories of tens and even hundreds of square kilometers for each specimen.
Although the snow leopard can inhabit relatively flat areas, such as the Tibetan Plateau, it has a preference for sloping and rugged terrain . Mountain ridges, rocky outcrops, and cliffs are part of their territory.
This habitat of the irbis, so inhospitable and steep, has favored that the adaptations to the jump are preserved and enhanced in its evolutionary process, providing it with the longest long jump capacity known among the felids: up to 15 meters —a tiger reaches 10 meters , and a cougar 12—.
The snow leopard population is currently estimated at between 2,700 and 3,400 individuals. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists it as a vulnerable species .
The main cause of this state is direct or indirect hunting . Indirectly, the impact is caused by the hunting of goats and ibex, the prey that the snow leopard depends on for its survival.
Directly, on the one hand, in some places it is considered an undesirable animal that must be eliminated. On the other hand, its fur is an attractive trophy for poachers and its bones are used as a remedy in traditional pseudo-therapies in the region. Currently, the demand for snow leopard rugs, clothing and taxidermy, especially from China and Eastern Europe, seems to be increasing. For this reason, despite the fact that hunting is illegal, it continues to be carried out.
Other significant impacts to which the species is subjected is the expansion of tourism and recreational areas in its territory, and the invasion of its habitat for urbanization or the installation of roads, railways, agricultural fields, livestock farms or mining.
Large investments have been made for the conservation of irbis. Among other measures, the establishment of protected areas within the range, with active measures to prevent poaching and initiatives to minimize conflicts with herders, both in the form of insurance and subsidies, and through social awareness .
Poaching has been dramatically reduced with success in range countries such as Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Among other measures, they have chosen to recruit reinserted former poachers as rangers , people who know very well how poachers operate.
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