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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.

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Jackson spends several months out of every year climbing in the Himalayas. The high altitude, spare living conditions, and grueling regimen would be tough on anybody. But, added to all that, Jackson doesn't like heights, Mr. Crowther says.

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"He's a tough, tough guy," agrees Jan Janecka, research assistant professor at the Veterinary Integrative BioSciences department at Texas A&M University, who has worked in the field with Jackson since 2005. "It's definitely one of the most challenging places to work – also very beautiful.

"He's a huge asset – very important for the conservation of snow leopards in Asia," Dr. Janecka says. "He's a real leader in working with locals on conservation.... He's a really unassuming guy; he's really considerate of the people who live there – very humble. He's really good at getting people to understand the importance of the wildlife communities that are there."

Snow leopards, like wolves in the American West, traditionally have been viewed as dangerous pests by sheepherding families in the Himalayas, most of whom live a subsistence existence. Their sheep are essentially four-footed bank accounts, Jackson explains, ones that look quite tasty to a leopard.

Disease, hypothermia, and insufficient winter forage, however, cause more livestock loss than the predators.

"It is a challenge when you're dealing with families living on $250 to $400 a year," Jackson says.

To help these families, and thus help the snow leopards, Jackson has come up with a range of solutions. Leopard-proof sheepfolds with wire-mesh roofs can eliminate 80 to 90 percent of livestock losses. Vaccinating livestock helps, too.

In the Ladakh region, bed-and-breakfast initiatives put money in the pockets of local women; in Nepal, savings and loans allow communities to pool their savings and take out microloans at less-ruinous interest rates than local moneylenders charge.

There are even snow leopard scouts: middle-school-age children who help set up leopard-watching cameras in the field. (No matter how remote the place – if you need technologically savvy help, go find a 10-year-old.)

"It really helps them connect with the animals," Janecka says.

Jackson's ability to engage locals in his work was one of the things that impressed the Indianapolis Prize jury, Crowther says, as well as his ability to come up with pragmatic solutions.

"There are some people who don't think a solution is any good unless it's complicated. Rodney is thrilled when a solution is simple," Crowther adds.

Jackson says that one common thread among his projects is that many of them were proposed by local residents.

"Let's try working with them: Respect that they have knowledge and bring them on as equal players," says Jackson of the Snow Leopard Conservancy's approach. "We wanted a solution that was their solution, not our solution."

Take the B&B's – which are more of a yurt-and-sleeping-bag-type arrangement. Those came about after a local woman stood up at a meeting and explained that, instead of housing adventure tourists in hotels, local families should host tourists in their homes, Jackson says. In this way, families would directly receive the tourism dollars, which they could use to pay to send their children to school. The money coming in from tourists helps persuade locals that live snow leopards are worth more than dead ones.

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