GHOST CATS

These endangered cats are nearly impossible to see—they’ve even earned the nickname “ghost of the mountains.” Their spotted coats act as cloaks of invisibility by blending into the rocky mountains of the 12 Central Asian countries where the cats live: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Their range spans about two million square miles, which is about half the size of Greenland.

The mountains the snow leopards call home are rugged and extremely cold in the winter. But these cats have some amazing body parts that make living in the area no big deal. In addition to camouflaging them, a snow leopard’s soft, dense fur keeps it warm in the bitter cold. Their large paws work like snowshoes, letting the cat walk on snow without sinking. And their long, heavy tail helps them keep their balance while they’re chasing prey. At night, the cats curl their tails around their bodies like a cozy scarf to keep warm—and to stay hidden while sleeping. (Find out 5 reasons why you'll leap for snow leopards.)

SEARCHING FOR SNOW LEOPARDS

Few humans have seen snow leopards in real life, but hunting scenes like the one above have been captured on video by researchers who spend countless hours searching the mountains of Central Asia for snow leopards. Researchers think only 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards exist in the wild, but no one knows for sure.

Snow leopard experts need to gather more information about the secretive cats’ lives to help protect them. To do that, researchers use high-tech tools to spy on the shy animals. They gently trap the wild cats to examine them and put on satellite radio collars to track where the cats roam. Motion-activated digital cameras capture images of snow leopards, exposing many new details about how many there are, how they live, and what threatens their survival.

THE REAL THREAT

Even though snow leopards live in some of the most rugged mountain terrain on Earth, people pose the biggest threat to their survival. Poachers can sell a snow leopard’s hide and bones for thousands of dollars. Herders often kill any snow leopard that attacks their livestock. Hunters target ibex, wild sheep, and other animals for food and trophies—removing important snow leopard prey. The more scientists can learn about snow leopards, the better they can protect these rarely seen cats from humans who harm them.