Rodney Jackson's passion for snow leopards has been a 35 year mission

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Anyone can study an animal when it is right in front of them, but Rodney Jackson chose as his passion an animal that is rarely spotted in the wild.

No one really knows how many snow leopards are left in the wild because the big cats are most happy when they see you but you don't see them. Just finding them is a big challenge.

"This is one of the big challenges, of course, is how do you estimate how many snow leopards are out there given you've got such a cryptic, I mean almost a ghost-like cat, right, that never shows itself and its most happy when it sees you and you don't see it," he said.

To do his research, Jackson has had to pack plenty of patience, as well as "camera traps. Remote camera traps have been very helpful in terms of identifying the number of snow leopards in an area."

He said the technology can help researchers learn much about a snow leopard, which are unique. "Like fingerprints."

When Jackson started working on snow leopards 35 years ago, researchers knew virtually nothing about them. "The highest priority, clearly, was to do some of the basic biology," he said. "Put on radio collars, track them, find out what size home range they need, what they feed on, how they moved about, how they bred and so on." For scientists, that means practicing patience in some of the harshest conditions on earth in some of the most dangerous terrain.

Then there are the political realities.

Snow leopard habitat includes some of the most dangerous border areas in the world between countries that are hostile toward one another, like Nepal, India, Mongolia, China and Bhutan. "These countries are often suspicious of one another that they have a strong sense of their own nationalism and would like all of the scientific data, knowledge, analysis to be done within the countries rather than necessarily sharing between range countries," said Jackson.

Conservation efforts generally require all parties to be on board with the program. Can you imagine trying get these disparate countries to agree? Add to that the fact that the snow leopard is a predator, which attacks livestock. Just about every country agrees that's not a good thing. Saving the predator and working with their enemies to do it, is a hard sell.

So hard, in fact, that Rodney Jackson spends a lot of his time mediating and has been involved in meetings with the Dalai Lama. Still, working through his group the Snow Leopard Conservancy, Jackson has been successful in building partnerships to preserve world's dwindling snow leopard population. Devising predator-proof enclosures, or "kraals", for livestock has helped the locals leave the big cats alone. His partner, Darla Hilliard, explains the importance. "Whenever we have a predator-proof kraal, there have not been incidents of snow leopards doping livestock raiding. A lot of areas where we work are Buddhist areas and they don't like to kill any animal for any reason."

At an age when many people are thinking about retirement, Rodney Jackson is still thinking about snow leopards. He wants to inspire others to carry on the work that he and Hilliard have begun. In nearly 40 years in the field, he has changed perceptions among people who live near snow leopards who once saw them as a despised pest and now consider them to be a valued asset.

Progress has been slow, but Jackson would point out that it is still progress. And just last year, he was part of an international team that put together research to get snow leopards downgraded from "endangered" to "vulnerable," a major step for the species well-being.

"We're always going to have to be vigilant, of course because things can change and there are changing forces."

Because of his accomplishments in the field and in working with political and religious leaders to help preserve the endangered snow leopard, Rodney Jackson has been a finalist for the Indianapolis Prize five times. He could win an unrestricted $250,000 award to help build on his work in some of the most remote places in the world. It is considered one of the most prestigious and one of the most lucrative conservation awards in the world today. The Zoo will award the Indianapolis Prize on September 29th.

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