Watching a 10-week-old snow leopard pounce, paw and purr as he chases flickers of sunlight across the grass, one can see why Dr. Rodney Jackson dedicated his life to protecting the endangered species as the founder of the Sonoma-based Snow Leopard Conservancy. To honor his 30 years of dedication, the spotted cub was named Jackson by Project Survival Cat Haven, a California nonprofit that is hand-raising the snow leopard for use as an ambassador animal for its species.
“Our mission is conservation in the wild. We need to get kids excited about protecting big cats,” explained Dale Anderson, Project Survival founder. He said snow leopard advocates could go into the classroom with a photo of an endangered cat, or bring in the real deal to let students see it in the flesh. “Which do you think is more effective?” he asked.
Anderson knows exactly how effective it is. As a child growing up in Santa Rosa, he was a seventh-grader when an animal educator brought a mountain lion to his classroom. He was captivated.
Jackson had a similar fascination with animals, growing up near true safaris as a child in South Africa. But despite a childhood alongside cheetahs, elephants and giraffes, it was a National Geographic article about snow leopards that captured Jackson’s imagination, inspiring a trip to Nepal in the 1970s to try to catch a glimpse of the elusive cat.
He didn’t see any live cats, but did find a poacher selling the silver-speckled pelt of a snow leopard he had slaughtered. Snow leopards were added to the endangered species list in 1972 to protect the dwindling population from poachers, but the animal is still regularly hunted for its fur. Today, it’s estimated that between 4,500 and 7,000 snow leopards live in the wild across 12 mountainous countries in Asia.