Snow Leopard Conservancy, founded by Dr. Rodney Jackson

Protecting snow leopards
May 5, 2011 – 02:25 PM

More has been done to protect snow leopards, one of the most elusive creatures on the planet, by a tiny organization in a small house in Boyes Hot Springs than by almost anyone else in the world. The Snow Leopard Conservancy, founded by Sonoma resident Dr. Rodney Jackson, marks its 10th year of defending the endangered species across the 10 countries it inhabits with a fundraising party on Saturday, May 22.

“We’ve been really focused on mobilizing local people as the stewards of their environment,” Jackson said. “It’s really starting to pay off.”

Jackson said during his 10 years of working to protect snow leopards, he has recently seen an increase in the number of cats spotted, a sign that the overall population has increased. But despite specific gains in the number of sightings, particularly in India, Northern Pakistan and Mongolia, Jackson said there is still much work to be done. Numerous camera traps set up across Eastern Russia, where snow leopards are known to roam, failed to capture a single image of any cats.

“We would not expect that to be the case,” Jackson said.

So how does one organization with just three employees protect an endangered species half a world away? Jackson said it all comes down to working with the tiny mountain communities where the leopards live.

“The best guardians are the local people,” Jackson said, explaining the conservancy’s job is to work collaboratively with communities to change residents’ perspective from viewing the leopards as a pest to an asset. “We want to create a direct link between the presence of the cat and the economics of their community. We make sure the community’s ideas, interests and concerns are incorporated.”

Despite being an endangered species protected in all countries, snow leopards are heavily hunted, not just for their exquisite fur but also because many natives see them as a dangerous nuisance that preys on their livestock. Jackson goes into these communities and teaches the residents not only how to protect their livestock from snow leopards, but also how to profit from the leopards by leading tourist treks to try to spot the animals.

“We let them see for themselves what the value of these animals are,” he said.

During his most recent trip, he traveled to the Khumbu area of Nepal surrounding Mount Everest, where snow leopards have only recently reestablished a habitat after decades of poaching that drove them completely out of the region. Jackson worked with a small community there to create an innovative micro-loan program that will help boost the economy of the community while also protecting snow leopards.

Under the newly-established Savings and Credit Act, the Conservancy deposited $1,200 into a savings account. Jackson then got dozens of households in the town to buy a share of the money by committing to continue adding to the account at a rate of 100 rupees ($1.30) a month. In exchange, the families can get loans from the savings account at an interest rate of 18 percent, when the average loan rate in Nepal is 30 percent.

“If the local people want to get money to build a house or fix their roof or buy supplies for their store, they had to go to the village lender … And these guys are notorious,” Jackson said.

Instead, the villagers can now control their own finances as a community. In exchange for the start-up capital, the account sharers agreed to spend a portion of the loan interest earned on snow leopard conservation, including educational activities to spread awareness to children and reimbursing those who lose livestock to the cats.

They also promise to report poachers. Jackson said the community has enthusiastically embraced the program, even throwing a cultural festival where they raised $800 for their account.

“This community has been doing (the program) for 10 months and they have already doubled their account,” Jackson said, adding that he hopes to implement similar programs in other communities and countries.

Working with Texas A&M University, Jackson has also helped develop new technology to help track snow leopards using satellite images that can pinpoint the locations where the cats are most likely to live. Jackson then takes a team into those locations and collects leopard skat, which is analyzed to tell researchers the gender of the animal and how many cats have passed through that area.

“That helps us determine where we’ll target our community efforts,” he said.

For his innovative conservation efforts, Jackson has been nominated for the Indianapolis Prize for the third time in the past five years. The $100,000 grant is considered the most prestigious award for conservation and wildlife protection. He will find out at the end of the year if the third time is the charm for winning the grant.

With an annual budget of just $300,000, Jackson has successfully implemented some degree of snow leopard protection in almost all of the countries the animal inhabits, which often means cutting through difficult political red tape. But Jackson said more funds are needed to continue spreading awareness and protecting the leopards so their numbers can increase to the level once seen across the Himalayas.

“It’s such a huge area we have to cover, how do we scale up? That’s where people in Sonoma can help. Small amounts of dollars can go a long way over there,” he said.

On Saturday, May 22, the conservancy will host the Snow Leopard Gala, a 10-year retrospective, at the Janet Pomeroy Center in San Francisco. The event includes a Himalayan-style bazaar, wildlife encounters with a bactrian camel and a feline ambassador, and a silent auction that includes mini safaris, behind-the-scenes tours of the San Francisco Zoo and a special package from the San Francisco Giants. Jackson will also speak, explaining the extensive work the Snow Leopard Conservancy has done during the past 10 years. Tickets are $75 and can be purchased by calling 935-3851 or

To donate to the conservancy or learn more about Jackson’s work, visit

One thought on “Snow Leopard Conservancy, founded by Dr. Rodney Jackson”

  1. The Snow Leopard Conservancy marks its first decade
    Wednesday, May 18th, 2011 | Posted by Suzie Rodriguez | no responses

    The internationally-renowned Snow Leopard Conservancy, headed by Boyes Hot Springs’ resident Dr. Rodney Jackson, is celebrating its first ten years on Sunday with a “wild” party guaranteed to create a roar or two (details below).

    Jackson, one of the world’s foremost wildlife biologists and conservationists, divides his time between the remote mountain reaches of central Asia and his Sonoma Valley home. No matter where he hangs his topi, though, his goal is to ensure the continuing survival of the endangered Snow Leopard.

    When in Asia, Jackson lives in the field under Spartan and often harsh conditions, camping summer and winter amidst some of the world’s highest mountains for months at a time. In three decades he has logged 3,000 miles on foot, and he’s survived the kind of dangerous adventures that make for blockbuster movies.

    Once, bitten badly by a Snow Leopard, Jackson had to trek over a 13,000-foot Himalayan pass buried in snow to reach an airstrip and, ultimately, a doctor. He’s been almost buried by an avalanche, traveled by jeep across the Great Gobi Desert, and ridden camels or horses where even the most rugged vehicles didn’t dare go.

    Life is easier in Sonoma Valley, where Jackson lives with his partner, Darla Hillard, author of Vanishing Tracks: Four Years Among the Snow Leopards and other works.

    “In the field life is very simple,” says Jackson. “I eat mostly rice and potatoes, sometimes a little meat. And then here we’re in the heart of wine country, with incredible restaurants and fresh food. There’s so much abundance. It makes you more appreciative of what we have here.”

    But for this adventurous pair living in the field is never far away, even in Sonoma. “We love to jump in the camper and go up to Sugarloaf and camp,” said Hillard. “It’s a gift that we’re able to do that.”

    The Snow Leopard Conservancy is run from a converted garage next to their home (Jackson is Director, and Hillard is Education Director). Among other projects, the Conservancy helps local communities in Asia develop strategies that protect these big cats. Although snow leopards don’t attack humans, they are hunted largely because they prey on livestock. Predator-proof night corrals and other ideas introduced by Jackson and partially financed by the Conservancy have helped local people move toward living more harmoniously with snow leopards.

    Extremely elusive, snow leopards are rarely sighted. Even Jackson, the world’s leading expert on snow leopards and their habitat, has only spotted them about 30 times in as many years of research. “They have superb camouflage,” he says. “It works well not only in snow, but against rocks and trees.”

    The elusive quality of these big cats makes it difficult to quantify their numbers. “Anywhere from 3,500 to 7,500 exist in the wild,” Jackson notes. Hillard adds that DNA and photo-capture techniques will allow more definitive population estimates in the future.

    Born in South Africa, Jackson came to the U. S. in the 1960s to attend U. C. Berkeley. He received recognition in the 1980s for his groundbreaking radio-tracking study of snow leopards, and continued working to ensure the cats’ survival. He has twice been a finalist for the Indianapolis Prize, the world’s largest monetary award for animal species conservation. Among many other honors, he is a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences.

    Jackson admits that his lifelong trek hasn’t always been easy. “If I’d known some of the challenges, I might not have taken this particular journey,” he says. “But the rewards have been great. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

    The Conservancy’s 10-year anniversary party on May 22 in San Francisco will feature special guests, including a Bactrian Camel from Sonoma’s Lyon Ranch and feline ambassadors from the Wild Cat Education & Conservation Fund (Shoshone, a mountain lion; and Natasha, a Siberian lynx). A Himalayan Bazaar will showcase handicrafts from India, Nepal, Siberia, Thailand, and Mongolia. Vegetarian hors d’oeuvres will be featured, along with Long Tail Wine and other beverages. An auction featuring mini-safaris and adventures is also on the agenda. Entry is $75.

    For more information, visit the Snow Leopard Conservancy website or call 935-3851.

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