Snow leopards are the sort of rare and elusive creatures that tend to grab our attention whenever they make an appearance. But the latest images of the cats, coming our way from the mountainous stretches of China's Tibetan Plateau, have conservationists really excited. For the first time ever, they say, cameras have clearly captured snow leopards mating in the wild. 

Late in 2015, an area of around 300 square kilometers of prime leopard habitat in China's Qinghai Province was rigged with camera traps as part of a conservation project led by the Sanshui Conservation Centre (SCC). The SCC team trained local herders to install and manage the infrared cameras, hoping for clues about the cats' behaviour and the state of the local population.

When SCC staff retrieved the cameras in April this year, they found remarkable snapshots of a mating leopard pair among dozens of other images of the cats. All in all, the cameras managed to capture 126 photos of 13 leopards over a period of five months (scroll down for video).

With perhaps as few as 4,000 snow leopards (Panthera uncia) left in the wild, the future of this flagship species is uncertain at best, so evidence that the cats are breeding in this region of China is really good news, conservationists say.

Though snow leopards occupy some of the harshest and most remote habitats in Asia, they're still at risk from human activity. Livestock herding is impinging on their habitats and poachers hunt the leopards for their fur and body parts, which are highly valued in Asian traditional medicine. Human-wildlife conflict, even within protected areas, is intensifying.

Along with footage of leopards scent-marking the ground to attract mates, these new images of the cats' mating ritual are a strong clue that the population in this part of China, at least, is healthy and breeding. 

Spot the snow leopard-2015-8-30


Top header image: Mark Dumont, Flickr

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