Rodney Jackson hikes high into the Himalayas to help snow leopards
Rodney Jackson and his team take 20 to 30 yaks, each loaded with 250 to 300 pounds of gear, into the Himalayas to study snow leopards, which take the word 'elusive' to an extreme.
People who drive an hour to work might complain about their commute. Rodney Jackson used to walk for 12 days.Skip to next paragraph
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"You were not in a hurry to leave," says Mr. Jackson, founder and director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, of his work in some of the most remote terrain on earth. Just to get mail, a runner would spend 25 days going out and coming back to camp.
Beginning in the 1970s, he, his partner Darla Hillard, and their team would take 20 to 30 yaks, each loaded with 250 to 300 pounds of gear, into the Himalayas to study snow leopards, which take the word "elusive" to an extreme.
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Snow leopard territory starts at 10,000 feet above sea level and goes as high as 21,000 feet, spread over 12 countries in Asia. And they aren't easy to find. A snow leopard roams about 50 square miles of territory, Jackson explains, adding that he could go two or three years between sightings. (Another researcher who has been studying them since 2005 says he has yet to see a snow leopard in the wild.)
Despite the difficulties of dealing with multiple bureaucracies – including the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China – Jackson says that overall conditions are improving for the mountain-dwelling cat. "I think snow leopards are better off now than they were 20 years ago," he says.
Jackson, who conducted the first radio-collar tracking study of snow leopards, started with a grant from an insurance company that first brought him to Nepal to photograph the leopards, followed by funding from Rolex for him and Ms. Hillard to conduct the tracking study, which had been considered impossible. In the 1980s, they used pressure pads and hidden cameras to take photos of the snow leopards.
Changes in technology have helped not only with reducing the sense of isolation but in capturing new data about snow leopards. Working with a PBS crew on the 2005 "Nature" documentary "Silent Roar," Jackson used infrared motion- and heat-sensing equipment to get never-before-seen footage of the cats hunting, marking their territory, and mating, as well as footage of a mother with her cubs.
With his glasses and quiet voice, Jackson may not look much like an action hero, but "tough" is the adjective most frequently applied to him by those who have worked with the South African-born conservationist.
"Unassuming" is a close second.
"I think he's got to be one of the toughest guys in the world," says Michael Crowther, president and chief executive officer of the Indianapolis Zoo. The zoo administers the Indianapolis Prize, which has sometimes been called the Nobel Prize of animal conservation. Nominees must prove that, thanks to their work, a species has a better chance of survival. Jackson has been a finalist three times, most recently in 2012.