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.

Courtesy of The Snow Leopard Conservancy
'I think snow leopards are better off now than they were 20 years ago,' says Rodney Jackson, who studies them in their native habitat above 10,000 feet.
Courtesy of The Snow Leopard Conservancy
Rodney Jackson uses pressure pads and hidden cameras to capture images of the elusive snow leopard as it roams its mountain range.

People who drive an hour to work might complain about their commute. Rodney Jackson used to walk for 12 days.

"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.

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.

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.

"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.

This is one of the biggest changes in conservation over the past decade or so, Crowther says. Instead of conservationists acting as cops to keep people out of an animal's territory, more, like Jackson, are trying to find solutions that will improve the lives of the people living there, as well as protect the animals.

"When you save environments for wildlife, you tend to sustain those environments for people, too," Crowther says. "It's a very holistic approach."

"He's looked long and hard at the kind of subsistence economy of people living in those situations and tried to come up with schemes that will appeal to their sensitivities and tastes and needs," says Chris Wemmer, scientist emeritus at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.

Snow leopard pelts are prized on the black market, Dr. Wemmer explains.

"[The people are] poor, and this is money walking on four paws. That's what you're up against," Wemmer says. "It takes a great deal of sensitivity and understanding to work without becoming jaded or cynical. The games people play can become pretty demoralizing."

Jackson's ability to operate on a shoestring, as well as the "sparing kind of existence" he and Hillard live even when not in the field, sets them apart, Wemmer says. "Everything he gets goes into the conservation of snow leopards. That's a bit unusual. That degree of devotion is not commonly seen."

• To learn more about the work of Rodney Jackson, visit

Helping Animals

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In Defense of Animals-Africa is committed to the conservation of great apes in Cameroon. Project: Volunteer to help for six months in a challenging and isolated environment at the Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Cameroon.

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