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.