Jackson: A snow leopard

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.

Still, little is known about the animals, and much of what is known was uncovered by Jackson. Between 1981 and 1984, Jackson and his team of researchers spent months living among the freezing peaks of the Himalayas, tracking snow leopards and placing the first-ever radio collars on the cats, enabling scientists to see their migration habits. They also used hidden cameras, triggered by sensors when snow leopards walk by, to capture the first images and create the seminal data on the endangered species. That research became a cover story for National Geographic in 1986, which included Jackson’s photo of the cats, the first picture of a snow leopard published in America.

“There’s no roads, no jeeps, no modern conveniences. We spent the entire winter living in tents in the Himalayas,” Jackson said of the experience. “Once you’ve seen a cat, you just know you have to save them. Future generations need to see that cat.”

Jackson began by spending time in the remote villages, to understand the local population’s feelings about the cat. In an inhospitable environment with limited options to make a living, the area residents rely heavily on their livestock to survive. Snow leopards routinely found a way into their pastures to hunt the livestock, making them a pest worth killing to most native people.

“We wanted to make the snow leopard more of an asset to the people,” Jackson explained. His efforts began by teaching farmers how to house livestock in enclosed pens that predators couldn’t access. But beyond that, he wanted to teach the local people how to profit from living nearby the rare creatures.

“The cats had to be more valuable alive than dead,” he explained. His team trained villagers to lead treks into the mountains where tourists have the chance to see the mysterious animals. He also created a home-stay vacation rental program, through which visitors can live alongside a family for a true cultural experience.

“The only way we could possible protect those cats is to get the local people to save them,” Jackson said. Currently, the Snow Leopard Conservancy works with local leaders in nine of the 12 countries snow leopards inhabit, establishing conservation plans that have helped the population rebound.

“Definitely the snow leopard is alive today because Rodney (Jackson) is on the job,” Michael Crowther, president of the Indianapolis Zoological Society, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012. The society grants the prestigious $100,000 Indianapolis Prize for species conservation every other year (which in 2014 will be increased to $250,000). Jackson has been a finalist for the prize three grants.

He said organizations like Project Survival are critical to the Snow Leopard Conservancy’s success, because they can provide living, breathing examples of what he is trying to save. Jackson (the cat) was born in captivity at a zoo in Kansas on May 22, but will be raised alongside 30 other exotic cats on 93-acres at Project Survival’s facility near King’s Canyon National Park.

“We’re the only organization in the country that has all of the big cats,” Anderson said, which include lions, tigers, clouded and amur leopards, cheetahs, servals, lynxes and jaguars.

On Sunday, supporters of the Snow Leopard Conservancy were invited to meet Jackson (the cat and the person) at a private fundraiser for both nonprofit organizations at Glen Ellen’s Relais de Soleil. The young cub delighted the crowd, romping around the grass, climbing anything he could get his paws on. Like any cat, he is mischievous and curious, eager to explore the new space.

“I am delighted to meet my new son,” Jackson said of the cat. “By having the ambassadors like Jackson, we can open people’s eyes.”

Keep up with the Snow Leopard Conservancy at snowleopardconservancy.org; or Project Survival Cat Haven at cathaven.com.