It’s a joke that’s been circulating online for years: Fans of snow leopards, who like to refer to their species as sneps, make fun of wahs, or Red Pandas. The basic tenor is that they are nothing more than a welcome snack. There is also talk on various websites that the snow leopard is hunting Red Pandas. For example, the National Geographic writes that the fur as well as the ability to climb upside down from trees helps the Red Pandas to escape predators like snow leopards.
In the same vein, Smithsonian Magazine also portrays the Red Panda’s fur as good camouflage from the hungry snow leopard.
But does this correspond to the current state of knowledge? What is known about the hunting behavior of the snow leopard?
We asked the Snow Leopard Trust. This conservation organization looks after this very secretive big cat species. To observe or even film a snow leopard in the wild is considered a real challenge. Accordingly, the knowledge is still expandable.
Örjan Johansson, PhD is Senior Scientist at the Snow Leopard Trust and just returned from a trip to Mongolia. He responded to our questions via email. According to his information, snow leopards are indeed good climbers – something that has been observed more often in zoos. But it can be assumed that snow leopards in the wild do not have so much practice in climbing trees to hunt Red Pandas. This is because snow leopards – unlike Red Pandas – usually live above the tree line.
“I don’t think anyone knows how often snow leopards kill a Red Panda. But I think it’s likely that it happens very rarely because the two species prefer different habitats,” Örjan Johansson explains.
According to the researcher, one way to find out whether snow leopards feed on Red Pandas – at least occasionally – would be to analyze stool samples. However, Johansson assumes that encounters between snow leopards and Red Pandas are extremely rare and random in nature. “If I had to guess, I would say that the most likely scenario is that they are young cats looking for a free territory, possibly crossing the Red Panda’s habitat. If such a cat comes across a Red Panda, it would be easy prey,” Johansson adds. But there are no documented attacks by snow leopards on Red Pandas.
Sonam Tashi, Program Coordinator for the Red Panda Network in Nepal, also confirmed to us via email that snow leopards are not among the Red Panda’s predators. “I have also read some information about this on the internet, but these are not true and there is no such proof so far,” Sonam Tashi writes. “Actually, leopards eat Red Pandas as these species share the same habitat, but snow leopards and Red Pandas rarely meet.”
Incidentally, the fact that leopards eat Red Pandas has been documented, for example in the 2006 film Cherub of the Mist, in which a leopard tears one of the two reintroduced Red Pandas.
The suggestion that snow leopards specifically hunt Red Pandas is a myth. But what they have in common is the mystery that surrounds them. Perhaps one of the reasons why they inspire people’s imagination so much.